One of my favourite pictures shows a group men atop a roof in Sao Paulo whilst below the traffic on the street hurries past. It will be known to many of you. It’s is both a document and piece of art that has a second life on postcards and other items.
The photographer is Reni Burri, a member of Magnum Photos since 1959. His pictures have graced the pages of some of the world’s leading pictorial magazines, such as Life, Paris Match, Geo and Stern. Hisphotograph of Che Guevara is repeatedly used by such diverse groups as revolutionaries and canny marketing teams the world over.
Yet it appears that alongside his black and white work, he was also exploring the world in colour, capturing a more abstract view of events and the places he visited.
Of course he shot stories in colour as the Sunday supplements took up the new opportunities offered by the medium in the 1960s, yet it has always played second fiddle to his monochrome work.
“I have led a double life as a photographer – one in black and white and one in colour”. Rene Burri
A new book Impossible Reminiscences attempts to end that second-class status and brings together more than 130 of Burri’s colour photographs that were taken over 50 years. The diversity of the work and indeed the ground covered shows the broad range of subjects he has tackled.
“Burri’s colour work is to a large extent worldly, devoted to life, full of curiosity about other ways of life and cultures and their colour palettes. It also shows a distinct degree of political interest. The use of colour in his photographs is never the result of purely formal intentions,” notes the photography critic and curator Hans-Michael Koetzle in the book.
For many photographers it is one or the other, as to shoot in both colour and black and white at the same time is not something that many can achieve. They require a different line of thought and approach, and most tend to concentrate on one or the other. Today most are working in colour, and the realm of black and white is now that of the art photographer. News is most definitely in colour, but back in the 1950s the serious work was done in shades of grey.
Yet Burri travelled with at least two cameras, one for colour and the other black and white, switching between the two at will, both with his own interpretation of the view in front of him captured to maximise the characteristics of the media.
Here are just a few of Burri’s colour frames, along with his reminiscence.