For the past two months, I did something rather incredible — I stopped taking photos. Granted, I indulge in a similar (albeit somewhat shorter) sabbatical every couple of years, so perhaps this doesn’t appear so inconceivable on the surface. But this recent leave was actually quite different from all those previous. It wasn’t triggered by nihilism, doubt or self-loathing. Instead, I took two months off simply because I felt like playing music more than I felt like taking photos.
Some of you may wonder how one activity precludes the other, but I’m one of those ‘all or nothing’ guys. Either I give myself fully to something or I don’t give at all. I’m not a dabbler. I’m an obsessive, obstinate, indefatigable perfectionist. In my book, half-efforts are indistinguishable from no effort at all.
Not surprisingly, there’s a world of difference between choosing not to take photos and being driven there by existential anguish. For the first time in a decade, I would leave the apartment without strapping a camera to my wrist. Contrast this with my previous sabbaticals, during which I continued to compulsively carry a camera — looking, hoping, longing for some small glint of inspiration that would pull me from my despondent photographic quagmire. But now, there was no quagmire — and thus no neurotic need for the security of a camera.
I fully expected such blithe disregard for photography to eat at my soul, but no such erosion occurred. I was far too distracted by life’s sounds, rhythms and intricately accidental harmonies to concentrate on any of its visual aspects. I thought briefly of Garry Winogrand’s famous comment that “there are no pictures when I reload,” and repurposed it as “there are no pictures when I don’t have a camera.” How could there be? My photos are a direct result of what I see. If I’m not looking, then I’m not seeing. And if I’m not seeing, there can be no photos.
After two months of sating my musical fixations, I was ready to re-engage with photography. I felt good — energized; enthused; inspired. I grabbed a camera and hit the streets.
It was then I realized that ‘seeing’ isn’t so much an innate talent as a practiced skill — and without practice, well…
And so I started all over again at what felt like ‘square one.’ It was frustrating that after only a two month leave, I now found it difficult to find a scene’s more understated elements, or anticipate the shifting dynamics of my environment — and such frustration began to play with my mind and with my confidence. Are my capabilities really this fleeting? Are they gone for good? Does it even matter?
And then René Burri died.
At the risk of being misunderstood, it wasn’t so much Burri’s death that propelled me into a state of melancholia — we all must pass, and his was a full, rewarding and purposeful life — it was the aftermath. Specifically, it was the collective shrug offered by the photographic community.
The fact many mainstream news outlets didn’t report Burri’s passing didn’t really bother me — after all, it’s not like any of them still have photojournalists on staff. So how could they possibly know that one of the greats had died?
Nor was I necessarily troubled by those news organizations that did report Burri’s death, but deemed it significantly less important than Renée Zellweger’s plastic surgery — I’ve lived long enough to accept that humans are an inherently inane species.
No, what bothered me were all the photography outlets that should have known better; that should have cared; that should have respected not just Mr. Burri’s life’s work, but the principles and poetry inherent in the images he shot. To me, René Burri was the consummate “photographer’s photographer” — the sort who didn’t believe that a successful photo was one that looked good hanging over the sofa but, instead, was one that made you think — and not in an obvious way, but in a subtle “works its way into your subconscious over time” way. This is one of the things I admired most about René Burri: the fact I could look at his photos again and again and, years later, find new nuances and meanings that I hadn’t previously noticed.
So is this how the various photo websites also chose to remember René Burri? Hardly. At best they name-dropped him as “the guy who took that famous photo of Che Guevara,” or “the guy who took those famous photos of Picasso.” Mostly they just regurgitated Wikipedia info or the content contained within the Magnum Photos press release that announced his passing. One popular and influential photography site basically ignored his 60+ year photographic career, saying they “don’t quite get him” while focussing instead on Burri’s flamboyant mode of dress — suggesting that “the more a person looks like an ‘artist,’ the less likely he is to do work of genuine merit.”
And to think I actually once thought highly enough of photographers to classify René Burri as “their” photographer. If these are the sort of tributes offered by his peers, what hope is there for photography’s future? Why do I bother? Why am I torturing myself to regain my mastery of subtlety when the master himself, René Burri, is so easily dismissed simply for wearing a turquoise shirt and a fedora?
But on further consideration, I remembered that quality and appreciation have little to do with one another. The fact that Burri is, I believe, under-appreciated by the current generation of photographers does not, in any way, diminish or alter the work he did. It’s there for all of us to see — whether we choose to look is up to us.
I re-watched Anthony Austin’s short film, “Six Photographs: René Burri,” in which Mr. Burri discusses (not surprisingly) six of his photos. And I realized that Burri’s own words are, perhaps, his most fitting eulogy. It seems the great ones always have to do everything themselves…
And with that, my sabbatical ended. If René Burri taught me anything, it’s that we all have a legacy to complete — even if much of the world will only shrug.
©2014 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS:
The photos accompanying this article are all allegories for its content. Yeah, I know — they’re not too subtle. But I did say I was ‘rusty.’
“Allegory 1” was shot with a Leica IIIc and a 50mm f/2 Summar lens at ISO 320 on Tri-X, which I developed in Rodinal 1:50. “Allegory 2” was shot with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and a 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens (it was belching rain, and this is my only “weather sealed” body/lens combination). “Allegory 3” (in case it’s not obvious) is a “selfie.” I shot it with my trusty Ricoh GR. “Allegory 4″” was shot with a Leica M2 and a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 Nokton lens at ISO 400 on Tri-X, which I developed in HC-110 Dilution H. Perhaps this is a good time to mention just how silly it is that I include this data with every post — it’s not like these photos exhibit a level of technical perfection that would inspire others to emulate them. Mostly, I’m just lucky if I get my subject somewhat in focus and am able to frame some semblance of a composition.
If you find these photos enjoyable or the articles beneficial, please consider making a DONATION to this site’s continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site — serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls.