Rene Burri in colour

 
Mexico City, 1976

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. His photograph 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.

Start Quote

I have led a double life as a photographer - one in black and white and one in colour”

End Quote 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.

Plzen, Czechoslovakia, 1958 Plzen, Czechoslovakia, 1956: This was the electronic assembly line at the Skoda factory. At that time it was the arms manufacturer of the East and, among other things, produced tanks and weapons - it was on this basis that I was going to do a story for The New York Times. When I got there, however, there was no sign of weaponry but what I saw was enough nevertheless. You can see the large poster of Lenin in the background, and this was right in the supposedly Stalinist area of Czechoslovakia.
Suez Canal, Egypt, 1974 Suez Canal, Egypt, 1974: I was with the Second Egyptian Army, who, at the end of the Yom Kippur War managed to cross the Suez Canal and establish a bridgehead there. They celebrated this victory by holding a military parade. However, as it was in the desert, rather than the troops parading in front of President Sadat, he went round inspecting the troops. I was in a jeep with the commander of the Second Army, just behind President Sadat, and we drove through the troops and past bombers, helicopters, tanks and all the rockets.
Das Island, United Arab Emirates, 1976 Das Island, United Arab Emirates, 1976: Das Island is in the Persian Gulf that produces oil and gas. There were about 3,000 male workers (and not a single woman) on the island, from all over the world. This picture is of a Japanese team that worked for a gas company. Their living conditions were quite spartan, but here they were taking time out by playing golf.
New York City, 1986 New York City, USA, 1986: I went to a huge Jewish wedding in Brooklyn with about 500 invited guests. There were very few non-Jewish people - non-orthodox, anyway. The celebration, the marriage of a rich guy, was very orthodox. That was what made it fun - the sense of occasion.

Impossible Reminiscences by Rene Burri is published by Phaidon.

 
Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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