Earlier this week we posted the first in our series of René Burri interviews in which the Swiss photographer spoke about one of his most iconic photos, Men on a Rooftop. Judging by the reaction it got on facebook and Twitter everybody loved it and particularly the way in which René talked about his memories of what went into capturing it. Today, in the second part of a chat we had with René last week at Phaidon, he talks about his relationship with Magnum’s Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Bresson was the founding father of modern photojournalism, an early adopter of the 35mm format and the forerunner of what’s now commonly known as street photography. In 1947 he co-founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative photographic agency effectively owned and managed by its members. Burri began working with Magnum in 1955, becoming a full member four years later.
“Bresson was my great teacher,” he remembers. “We had a great relationship though elements of it were antagonistic. But we inspired each other. In those days even among ourselves at Magnum there was no feeling of competition. People said how can you 15, 20 guys live together without bashing in each other’s heads? But the truth is when somebody did something that you really wanted to do it actually felt great that they’d done it. That kind of feeling was strong and kept us all going.
"But Henri aggravated me very often. Why? He would look through your contacts upside down! He did this because he always wanted to see the composition. And I used to say, ‘I’m going to strangle you one day! Isn’t it interesting looking at my pictures?’ But I learned so much from that and the moment came when I too pulled the picture over the separations slip on the contact sheet and tried to look at it in the same way.
“At that point I learned that you have to go beyond the image. And Cartier-Bresson was the greatest ever on 35mm - in that sense of composing and taking it up to the ‘orgasm’, or what he called ‘the decisive moment’.
“I was of a completely different temperament to him. I remember, one day I told him well you have your decisive moment and I have mine! I shot - like on some of the iconic images - one or two or three images only. I was very economical. In those days you had to look through exactly and that’s what I still do now. Even though the Leica camera is now digital it’s the same as it was 40 or 50 years ago.”
Look out for our third mini interview with René in the coming days. And make sure to browse the store where you'll find our great René books. And if you're in London check out Rene's Larger Than Life at The Atlas Gallery.
Sign up to receive Phaidon stories via email