René Burri, International Centre of Photography, Verona

Below the sleepy streets of Verona, amongst a network of archaeological ruins, sits the International Centre of Photography, Verona. It is here where a breath taking transcendental retrospective of René Burri is revealed. The lesser portrayed side of Burri’s work is harder to pin down in terms of theme or aesthetics. Yet one quality that is apparent is the depiction of a relationship either physically or through the framing of subjects in the picture.

Paris, France (1950) shows a series of five images taken around Paris detailing human and architectural interaction. Each image is accompanied by a blank piece of photograph paper either above or below the image. This is incredibly compelling and sensory, but rather than a feeling of unfamiliarity that is synonymous with most photographic peers of Burri, the blank paper alludes to the impossibility of total understanding. As Burri’s career continued on, transgressing the massive changes in media and resourcing of imagery, so did his work. Towards the end of the exhibition, several large collages grace the walls like posters. Simply titled René Burri (1997) shows the backs of a young family picnicking by a picturesque lake with mountains carving the horizon line. Out of the ground and littering the landscape, industrial chimneys tower and obscure the natural beauty. The only colour on the image comes from the central chimney, in the ripped form of the central cross and red background from the Swiss flag. Away from the obvious political and environmental statements the work suggests, the image is incredibly beautiful. Its surreal combination of imagery and juxtaposition of landscapes provides a playful universal wit reminiscent to Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

Throughout the exhibition one is assaulted with candid glimpses of war, mostly from the Middle East during the Six Day War. A Destroyed Russian Helicopter (1967) demonstrates the destructive reckoning and precision of 21st century warfare. A black and white image showing the twisted, burnt out shell of a helicopter on a landing pad in the centre of the frame surrounded by the un-affected desert sands. Next to it René Burri (1967) depicts a surface-to-air missile site with the missile poised in an upward trajectory. The correlation between the two is vividly obvious, yet there resides an incredible heart-pounding alertness when seeing the images. The audience are effortlessly transposed to a parallel universe by the cold concrete walls and the echoing silence, only broken by the low humming of an air conditioning system which enhances these glimpses of distant battlefields. This is a phenomenon that Burri continually strives for and achieves, and continues to achieve as seen, like the soldiers in his images, in wave after wave of stunning and compelling war photography.

René Burri , June 8th (1967) and Israel, Yom Kippur War (1974) act as iconic memorable scenes from the narrative one makes through his career. The former presents an expansive, barren desert with two blown up tanks facing each other across its ruthless terrain. The latter occupies a wall on its own, further beatifying its iconic presence. A silhouette of a soldier’s top half and rifle with bayonet dominate the foreground. In the background over his left shoulder a squadron of nine helicopters plague the sky symbolizing an obscene sense of duty and power, matched and marvelled by René Burri and his camera.

William Davie

René Burri, until 22 September, International Centre of Photography, Verona.

1. Che Guevara al Ministero dell’Industria, L’Avana, Cuba, 1963 © René Burri / Magnum Photos.