René Burri, Pablo Picasso (1957), Villa La Californie, Cannes, France

The René Burri Interviews #4 Bigger is better!

Magnum photographer on how adding sound (and rockets) to his photos opened up a new world

In a career that’s lasted almost 60 years and has seen him take iconic photographs of Winston Churchill, Che Guevera and Pablo Picasso among countless others, we were surprised to learn that one of Magnum photographer René Burri’s fondest memories is of an event he staged in Paris back in 1984 in which his iconic photos were blown up to a huge format for the first time ever accompanied by blaring sound and blazing rockets. It was hard not to notice the glint in his eye as he told us the story in the Phaidon offices a couple of weeks back. He also revealed how that 1984 show, in the Parc de Sceaux just outside Paris, partly inspired his current show in London at the Atlas Gallery.

“For the ‘84 show I made three little slides and asked for them to be enlarged in colour 100 times. And at that time they said ‘we can’t print them up René.’ (Nowadays, of course, we’re able to actually make things wall size or house size). So they printed each part from 360 millimetres to 3 metres sixty. We put them on metal plates and I made two collages with the images: one was on consumption and one was on ecology.

“I included lots of lights and strange gadgets - like (Jean) Tinguely did on some of his mobiles. So the viewer would press a button and lights would come on and also music. And I made these three-minute long collages of images with rockets and a blast off at the end. And at first the director said ‘oh no, this noise is no good! We can’t have it! But by the end it had become a fantastic part of the show. You had this balance kind of thing going on, an illustration in sound. And I remember a woman saying to me, Oh René we’re going to miss this thing!’

“So I took them to another show a couple of months later but nobody could make them work. I had to fly a guy out and it became a mammoth kind of thing. Finally they ended up in a studio in Zurich and we dismantled them and they became collages. I had a dream of selling them to some company but the problem with this kind of illustration – I call them a mega photo mobile – was that you almost needed a mechanic with it! If I had been smarter I would have made mini ones. Nobody would buy them because each thing cost 20,000 Swiss francs just to build! But even now, years later, I would like to put them on the walls somewhere, maybe without the blinking lights and sound. “

René Burri – self portrait with iPhone May 11, 2012
René Burri – self portrait with iPhone May 11, 2012

Then recently, Ben (Burdett) from the Atlas gallery called me up and said, ‘I would like to do a big format show with you René’. And he came and he chose seven images, little icons, and said can you print them up? So I had the lab print them. He also had back ups from earlier things from Magnum, and he has done a very nice selection of this with the big prints. In the Parc de Sceaux they were up on poles and they looked very small and then all of a sudden you have them in a gallery or an appartment and they go from here to there (motions floor to ceiling with his hands) and it’s wow!

“It’s funny: 50 years ago photographing Che I could never have imagined that he would stare down at me from a museum wall years in the future. My show has gone for the last six years around 18 museums in south America and Europe and when I go to these places it’s great to see the younger generation have an exchange with a moment that occurred maybe 40 or 50 years ago.

“In a way the pictures have become even more iconic at this size. At the moment I’m having the tendency anyway to limit some of the images and prints I want to have printed or even sold because it’s actually getting more difficult to print up smaller formats. Bigger isn’t always better but some of those icons I never had them in such a size. I painted my appartment and put several up and screwed them onto the wall. They look fantastic – there’s even one in my garden!” 


Look out for another 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