The René Burri interviews - #1 Men on a Rooftop
The Magnum photographer on how he pulled the wool over Henri Cartier-Bresson’s eyes with his most iconic shot
Already a best seller at the Atlas Gallery show in London (Larger Than Life), which sees René Burri’s most iconic photographs printed at a huge scale, Men On A Rooftop is also one of the photographer’s most iconic images. On Friday we met up with René and he told us some fascinating stories about his time with the Magnum photo agency and some of the assignments he’s been on during his six decades as a photographer. We’ll be rolling them out over the coming days.
To kick the series off, today we bring you the story behind Men on a Rooftop, - a dramatic, glamorous, vertiginous photograph he shot in San Paulo, Brazil in 1960. Burri had been in south America shooting street scenes as part of a commission for the magazine Praline. At the time he was beginning to experiment with geometry in his photographs - as a student Burri had fallen in love with the emerging modern architecture of the day (indeed, he went on to form close friendships with Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer). In Men on a Rooftop the city stretches out seemingly miles beyond what is happening on the rooftop, and seems to encapsulate the millions of tiny lives below in one, single frame.
“Back then when we started, things were so different,” Burri told us. "We tried to get somewhere with the minimum. I never had money and never looked for money. I started early, with my training at art school, to come up with a look for precise things and maybe a little bit in a natural way. I was always surprised that I could see the perspectives, the geometries.
“The Men on a Rooftop photo came about as part of a process of doing a story on the city, and all the people in a city and all the contradictions of the city. Really, I was just travelling around, it was an assignment. But the more and more I got in touch with, how should I say, my own vision about things - which sometimes went a little bit beyond what the people expected from a more popular view on a city or a theme - I found out things for myself. It was ‘self-inflicted’ in a way. Some of my own stories and ideas just came out better than when someone sent you somewhere and said, ‘Do this’ or ‘do that’. Because when you got to the place it looked completely different. So when you came back with something they’d say ‘oh that looks really interesting’.
“Did I know those men were there when I took that photograph? No. I went up there out of curiosity. I remember taking the elevator to the roof. Buildings weren’t guarded in those days; they didn’t have guardians as they have now. It was a question of getting to the top and knocking on the door. And then saying excuse me’. Excusez-moi, ce que je peux faire une photo? Desculpe-me, posso tirar uma foto? ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come in!’ so I walked out onto the terrace and at that moment those guys came from nowhere and I shot five images.
“In those days Henri Cartier-Bresson limited us to lenses from 35 mm to 90 mm. When I showed him the photos he said, ‘brilliant René!’ I went outside and shouted ‘Hah!’ He heard me and said ‘what was that?’ I said, ‘nothing, never mind’. The lens I used was 180 mm – I never told him! At that point I broke loose from my mentor. I killed my mentor!” Read the second in our series of René Burri interviews and look out for our next ones in the coming days. And browse the store for our great René books.