René Burri

Sao Paolo, Brazil, 1960

1960, printed 2014

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
René Burri 1933–2014
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 349 × 524 mm
Presented by Pierre Brahm 2015


Sao Paolo, Brazil, 1960 is a black and white gelatin silver print on paper. Taken from an elevated position, the photograph depicts the streets, high rise buildings and rooftops of São Paolo below. The composition is divided roughly into three vertical sections. The section to the left depicts, on a vertical axis, a major road with multiple lanes of heavy traffic. Sunlight on the road creates a strong contrast with deep shadow to the left edge of the composition and the central section of the photograph to its right. This central section depicts a cluster of high-rise buildings flush against the road. The section to the right of the composition is dominated by a high rooftop in the foreground. Most of the rooftop is strongly illuminated by sunlight. Four men are seen walking in the direction of the camera across the wedge of sunlight, casting long shadows before them.

This image is part of a portfolio of twenty-seven prints, selected and compiled by Swiss photographer René 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 his black and white work, 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, becoming a full member in 1959. His extensive career encompassed a wide variety of photographic practices, bridging the gaps between documentary, reportage, street photography and the photo-essay and 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.

Ministry of Health by Architect Oscar Niemeyer, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, 1960 1960, printed 2014 (Tate P14307) and Worker for Nordeste Shows his Family the New City Designed by Oscar Niemeyer on Inauguration Day, Brasilia, Brazil, 1960 1960, printed 2014 (Tate P14308) are gelatin silver photographs taken in Brazil in 1960. Both are part of a series in which Burri photographed the work of the modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. Burri returned to the project over a period of several years, documenting the construction of Brazil’s new capital city Brasilia as it was built from scratch, focusing firstly on its planning and construction and then on the function and use of the new spaces in everyday life. 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 form are reminiscent of techniques used by modernist photographers in the early twentieth century.

Poster of Che Guevara, 1993 1993, printed 2014 (Tate P14327) is a colour photograph documenting a deteriorating and 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.

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

Shoair Mavlian
January 2015

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Display caption

Burri joined the prestigious Magnum Photos agency in 1955, documenting many key political and cultural events of the second half of the twentieth century. Two of the photographs shown here are part of a series on the work of acclaimed modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, who masterminded the construction of Brazil’s new capital Brasília, built from scratch in the late 1950s. Burri was particularly sensitive to the possibilities of different perspectives and the effects of light and shadow created by architectural form.

Gallery label, February 2016

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