Monday, 4 August 2014

The story behind René Burri’s iconic photo of São Paulo


Everyone has seen this picture before. Well, almost everyone. René Burri's iconic photograph is perhaps the most famous photo of São Paulo.

Taken in 1960, at a time when São Paulo was on a rapid rise to become one of the world’s most important industrialised cities, the black and white photograph’s timing and composition perfectly captures the both the moment and the historical period.

Burri was born in Switzerland in 1933 where he learned to play with his father’s camera. By the time he was 20, Burri was already a trained photographer of the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts and began documenting life as a cadet during his two years in military service.

Only after this did he have some contact with formal photography studios and starting his own projects. Before long he was published in French magazine Science & Vie and embarked on a trip to Paris to personally show his work to Magnum Photos.

David Seymour co-founder of Magnum was so impressed that he made Burri an associate member of the agency and arranged further assignments for him.

He soon began shooting in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America including Brazil. And it was while photographing in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1960, that Burri worked on an assignment for German magazine Praline and captured one of his most iconic images. The shot is of four shadowy businessmen walking on the rooftop of a skyscraper amid a smoke filled background, tens of stories above the busy streets below. It was a stunning, dramatical image that announced the metropolis of São Paulo's to the outside world.

Besides being iconic, the photograph has historical importance too in that it was a tipping point in Burri`s career. He shot it using an 18mm lens despite Magnum members only being allowed to shoot from 35mm to 90mm. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had mentored Burri for many years and insisted on not using lenses below 35mm, was kept at a distance after this shot and Burri followed his own path into photography`s history books.

Burri in 2010 at the age of 81
He argued in favour of new and different photographic styles and continues to do so to this day. "Everybody now has a cell phone and can take snaps, which is great - even children," he says. "But my advice for young photographers is to go and cover things that nobody else is thinking about. Put your nose into things. Use the third eye of the camera and don't be completely dependent on Photoshop or the way other people want you to cast the world."

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