René Burri

Poster of Che Guevara, 1993

1993, printed 2014

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
René Burri 1933–2014
Photograph, C-print on paper
Image: 511 × 342 mm
Presented by Pierre Brahm 2015


Poster of Che Guevara, 1993 1993, printed 2014, is a colour photograph documenting a peeling street poster celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Cuban revolution. The poster uses a famous portrait of Che Guevara smoking a cigar which Burri himself had originally taken in 1963. The original portrait was captured when Burri accompanied an American journalist working for Look magazine to a three-hour-long interview at the Ministry of Industry in Havana, Cuba. The image went on to become an iconic symbol of the leader and has been appropriated many times for a wide range of political and commercial uses. When remembering the encounter, Burri commented that the lighting in the room was very dark as Che did not want to open the blinds; he also remembered that during the long meeting Guevara did not once acknowledge the presence of the camera, never making direct eye contact with Burri’s lens. The inclusion of this photograph in the portfolio – an image of one of Burri’s earlier pictures in a different context – highlights the photographer’s self-reflexive engagement with his work and his subjects throughout his career.

This image is part of a portfolio of twenty-seven prints (Tate P14301P14327), selected and compiled by Burri as a cohesive group shortly before his death in 2014. The selection spans his sixty-year career and includes a number of his best known black and white works, as well as a group of lesser-known colour works. The portfolio was printed by Burri in 2014 and this copy is number three in an edition of five plus one artist’s proof. It contains fourteen black and white gelatin silver prints and thirteen colour C-prints, highlighting Burri’s diverse use of light and shadow alongside his experimental use of colour. Although predominantly known for shooting in black and white, Burri often travelled with two cameras, switching between them to capture images in both colour and black and white. This was a progressive approach at the time, when colour photography was generally only used in advertising or for commercial practices. Burri revisited his archive of colour images later in his career and published the monograph René Burri: Impossible Reminiscences in 2013 as a decisive examination of this work.

Burri is most famous for his work as a member of the photojournalism agency Magnum Photos and the portfolio includes images produced in this context from projects in Brazil, Egypt, Lebanon, East Germany, China and South Korea, as well as an iconic image of Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara taken in Havana in 1963. The young Burri was introduced to Magnum by fellow Swiss photographer Werner Bischof and began working with the agency first as an associate in 1955, before becoming a full member in 1959. His extensive career encompassed a wide variety of photographic practices, including documentary, reportage, street photography and the photo-essay, as well as portraiture, architecture and landscape. He often worked on press assignments and personal projects simultaneously, building a varied portfolio of work in both black and white and colour. Burri’s use of both bird’s eye and worm’s eye views and his attention to the effects of light and shadow created by architectural forms are reminiscent of techniques used by modernist photographers in the early twentieth century.

Further reading
Hans-Michael Koetzle, René Burri Photographs, London 2003.
Hans-Michael Koetzle, René Burri: Impossible Reminiscences, London 2013.

Shoair Mavlian
January 2015
Arthur Goodwin
October 2018

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