© René Burri, 1961, Tae Soe Dong, South Korea

One of his countless journeys took the Swiss Magnum photographer René Burri to South Korea in 1961. Together with journalist Bernie Kalb, he was reporting for The New York Times about a country in which a clique of officers led by General Park Chung Hee had seized power two weeks previously through a putsch. Upon arrival, René Burri experienced the atmosphere as eerily silent.

In the feature Again Korea Is Being Tested, published in The New York Times on November 12, 1961, Kalb described South Korea as a country “in which people have no living recollection of times when their country’s fate was not damned, when their lives were not unhappy”. (+)

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Until today Magnum stands for documentary photography of the highest standard. Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour (Chim) founded the legendary photo agency in 1947, with the aim to work independently in a motivated cooperative of likeminded photographers - as reporters, commentators and poets with a camera. The decisive moment and Human Interest became the central paradigms of this group.

The exhibition In our time" (at Galerie WestLicht, Vienna) opens a time window to the first forty years of Magnum with photographs of the five initiators and fifty other members, such as Werner Bischof, Ernst Haas, Erich Lessing, Eve Arnold, Marc Riboud, Elliott Erwitt, Inge Morath, René Burri, Bruce Davidson, Constantine Manos, Burk Uzzle, Hiroji Kubota, Bruno Barbey, Josef Koudelka, Gilles Peress, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Raymond Depardon and Sebastião Salgado.

The photographs present strong contrasts, ranging from classic black and white reportage to abstract plays of colour that became icons of collective visual memory. The 145 large format prints were produced during the late 1980s for an exhibition carrying the same name and later got into private ownership. WestLicht managed to acquire this spectacular convolute and present it for the first time in Austria.

Exhibition dates:
Dec. 07, 2012 - Feb. 10, 2013

#1: © René Burri, Che Guevara, Havana 1963
#2: © Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sport in a refugee camp, Kurukshetra, Punjab 1948
#3: © Marc Riboud, Peace march, Washington D.C. 1967
#4: © René Burri, Fête Forain, Zurich 1980

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© René Burri, 1960, Rio de Janeiro

"I never thought I would become a photographer." (René Burri)

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In 1963, his image of Cuban Comandante Che Guevara inadvertently created a brand that a myriad of uprisings and revolutions subsequently adapted to their purposes.

“Two years after having stupidly missed the revolution in Cuba because I was away skiing with my family, I received a call from Magnum. They said: Burri, you are going to Cuba. So, on New Year’s Eve, I travelled by train to Prague via Vienna and, from there, flew in a Russian Ilyushin to Cuba.”

Burri had been commissioned by “Look” magazine to shoot the pictures for an interview they were doing with Che Guevara, the number two man of the Cuban revolution. “The blond American reporter Laura (Bergquist) and the Comandante played cat and mouse for three whole hours – and I was caught in the middle. During the entire session, Che kept jumping up and down from his seat and pacing around his office. It was three hours of backbreaking work for me.”

”(…) I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn’t look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince Laura with maps and graphs.”

One of the photographs made during that session has advanced to iconic status: an arrogant, self-assured Che puffing on a thick Havana cigar. After Che died and became a worldwide hero for antiestablishmentarianism, the image was stolen thousands and thousands of times to be reproduced on posters, flags, T-shirts, as well as watches, coffee mugs, and ashtrays. The brand “Che” became so prevalent that not even the photo agency Magnum Photos was able to stop the pictures from being lifted. (read more here and here)

#1: © René Burri, 1963, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Contact Sheet
#2: © René Burri, 1963, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara at Ministry of Industry, Havana
#3: © Gian Marco Castelberg, 2011, Portrait of René Burri

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© René Burri, Nov. 9, 1965, Blackout, New York City

“A young photographer in China asked me some years ago whether I knew what Chinese painters, poets or sculptors would do when they became famous. I did not know. He said they would change their names, in order to see whether they were still any good.” (René Burri)

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“one of these days, i’m going to publish a book of all the pictures i did not take. it is going to be a huge hit.”