As previously unseen work, of and inspired by pyramids, goes on display at Les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles, Clotilde Burri-Blanc recalls her memories of her late husband’s affinity with the structures in an extract from the book ‘The Imaginary Pyramids’.
On his first trip to Egypt in 1958, René Burri saw the pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, a vast tomb planted in the middle of the desert. Having spent his childhood in Switzerland in the mountains, René was instinctively fascinated by these prodigious constructions made by the hand of man; Mountains in the desert, but without the snow. He would go on to travel several times to Mexico, Guatemala and Egypt to satisfy his eye, photographing varied pyramids in black and white and in color. This personal project would never be published (until now).
At this time his work adopted the triangular form; his photographs are full of unconscious references to the pyramids. Roofs of houses, tipis of Indians, modern architecture, Zen gardens … René was geometrically-minded, and he saw pyramids everywhere. He covered his notebooks with drawings and even collected objects in the form of pyramids, this perfect triangle, the four equal sides, magical and mysterious.
"René loved to escape back to those mountains that gave him the strength, rigor and energy, to find a shape of inner peace, to contemplate and to meditate"
- Clotilde Burri-Blanc
René prolonged his travels by photocopying his own photos. He tore pieces of newspapers, postcards, flyers gleaned everywhere, and collected them in many collages enhancing them with his box of watercolors. The night was conducive to his overflowing imagination when, alone and surrounded by his memories, the making of these creations lasted until until the dawn.
"His fascination for the pyramids was his way of discovering what the mountains had hidden for so long: the horizon, a point of view."
- Clotilde Burri-Blanc
Our first trip together was to the Yucatan region of Mexico in May 1987. René welcomed me at the airport, cheerful and enthusiastic. Two surprises awaited me: the good one being that the pyramids were located in wonderful places. The bad one being that – though I did not know it at the time – I had vertigo! I spent our expedition reading my guidebook and watching the changing light from sunrise to sunset at the foot of the pyramids, unable to climb. This exhibition is, for me, a tribute to this journey that will remain forever etched in my memory.
A nomad from his native Switzerland, René loved to escape back to those mountains that gave him the strength, rigor and energy, to find a shape of inner peace, to contemplate and to meditate. He had spent his childhood at heart of the Alps that blocked his view. He liked to say that he ran up the last meters of those mountains to see what was on the other side, and there were always other peaks. His fascination for the pyramids was his way of discovering what the mountains had hidden for so long: the horizon, a point of view.
Les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles is open fron July 2 to September 23, 2018.
Les Pyramides imaginaires de René Burri, Éditions Textuel, 2018. With support from the Swiss Confederation and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. A Wombat Box of this work is also available.
For all the details on Magnum photographers with work showing at Arles go here.