René Burri

Biography of René Burri

René Burri was a Swiss photographer who worked for Magnum Photos and was known for documenting major political and cultural events and photographing key figures from the second half of the 20th century. He was celebrated for his inquisitive nature, unique perception of the world and humanist angle. His intimate portraits of artists and political revolutionaries such as Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Che Guevera have reached an almost iconic status within the history of photography.


Born in 1933, René Burri took his first photograph at age 13 after being encouraged by his amateur photographer father to pick up a camera. He captured the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was on a state visit to Switzerland during World War II. From 1949 to 1953, René Burri studied at the School of Applied Arts in his native city of Zürich. In 1953, while doing military service he began working as a documentary filmmaker before taking a job at Disney. After leaving Disney, he traveled extensively, documenting his travels for publications such as Life, Paris-Match and the New York Times.


René Burri was noted for his perseverance. His most renowned interactions with cultural figures required years of organization. He famously said of his obsession with Picasso: “I wasn’t interested in taking photographs, I was interested in the man.” When traveling with fellow photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson he was presented with the opportunity to photograph Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara for Look magazine. The powerful portraits he captured became internationally distributed and were used on posters and flags.


René Burri became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1959 and was elected chair of Magnum France in 1982. He died in 2014 at the age of 81. During his career he reached a high level of international acclaim and won an honorary fellowship at The Royal Photographic Society. Exhibitions of his work have been held at the Kunsthaus Zürich, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the International Center of Photography in New York.

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