In Memoriam: Rene Burri, 1933–2014

Swiss photographer Rene Burri. © Magnum Collection/Magnum Photos

A little over a year after the end of World War II, on an overcast day in Zurich, Switzerland, a thirteen-year-old boy raised his father’s camera to take a picture of Winston Churchill, in town for a speech at the University of Zurich; it was during this speech that Churchill famously proclaimed, “Let Europe arise!” Little did that young boy know that the picture he took would be the first of many world-defining events that he would go on to capture through his lens in the years to come.

After an illustrious, decades-long career, and with countless stories told, Swiss photojournalist and Magnum member Rene Burri passed away on October 20. He was eighty-one years old.

Burri was well traveled and had a compassionate and humanistic eye. He photographed many of the twentieth century’s key events, from the Berlin Wall crisis and the Vietnam War to the protests in Tiananmen Square as well as many of its political and cultural figures, from Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti to Che Guevara and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, for decades, it was often in the lives and moments outside of the world’s spotlight that Burri really shined. He made pictures in Japanese Zen gardens and in Native American trading posts. He photographed school children in Munich, street life in Havana, and segregation in South Africa. He documented American GIs in brothels in Vietnam, kids playing in the streets of Beirut, pretty women in Rome, and rising skyscrapers in Brazil. Further on, in France, Spain, Mexico, Egypt, Liberia, Argentina, and even here in Rochester, New York, Rene Burri pursued his insatiable worldly curiosities with indomitable conviction, all while donning his trademark scarf and fedora.

In a sense, Burri was Magnum’s photographer quite literally—as for over thirty years he was the man behind the camera of Magnum’s Annual General Meeting group pictures. It was he who made the picture of the whole stable of the co-op’s photographers year after year, and in so doing, essentially played the role of family patriarch for three decades.

Looking back at Burri’s long career, it is not difficult to understand why he came to be seen with such reverence by his peers. In a recent email, fellow Magnum member Martin Parr offered his thoughts: “We all loved Rene, for his stories, his good humour and of course his annual portrait, which became a real tradition, and one we all looked forward to.”

Gregory Eddi Jones is an artist, writer, and publisher based in Rochester, NY

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