Commonplaces: René Burri, Carlos Fuentes, Diego Velázquez and Johannes Vermeer

As a photographer I have led a double life – one in black and white and one in color.

René Burri

Museum für Gestaltung Zürich (the Museum of Design in Zurich) is now showing René Burri’s Doppelleben (A Double Life), a homage exhibition for his 80th birthday.

Burri makes a pointed statement, the “artist” in him, with his interest in the play of forms and colors, loves confusion, puzzle and mystery. In his pictures we repeatedly find views through, inside or outside that are in someway unsettling. Windows and mirrors play an important role, they double the world: labyrinths for the eyes. The theme of the “picture in the picture” occurs regularly, the world as a stage, everyday life as a stage.

From the exhibition’s brochure

The exhibition gives a chance to know the stories behind some of the photographs. Here is one of them:

New York City, USA, 1998

I was at the top of the Magnum building on Spring Street and this was the building next door. I happened to look out and see those guys: she came out first, took off her clothes, and he started shooting. I became an unwitting, accidental paparazzo.

From Burri’s new publication Impossible Reminiscences

Here you can watch a video where René Burri talks about his colour photography.

More of Burri’s stories, told by himself,  you can listen to here.

After the exhibition I spent some time thinking about windows, mirrors, a concept of a “picture in picture”. And I remembered The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes. I’ve chosen some quotes that, in some way, illustrate Burri’s photography.

In tombs surrounding the religious sites of these native peoples (the Olmecs and the Totonacs), mirrors have been found, buried, ostensibly, to guide the dead through the underworld. Concave, opaque, polished, they contain the spark of light in the midst of darkness

…On this shore are the slate-black pyrite mirrors found at the pyramid of El Tajín, an astonishing site whose name means “lightning”… El Tajín is a mirror of time.

On the other shore, Cervantes’ Knight of the Mirrors does the battle with Don Quixote, attempting to cure him of his madness. The old hidalgo has a mirror in his mind, reflecting everything that he has ever read, which, poor fool, he considers to be the truth.

Nearby, in the Prado Museum of Madrid hangs a painting by Velázquez in which he pictures himself painting what he is actually painting, as if he had created a mirror. But in the very depth of his canvas, yet another mirror reflects the true witnesses of the work of art: you and I.

The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes

The painting he’s talking about here is Las Meninas.

And this is what E.H Gombrich said about Las Meninas in The Story of Art:

What exactly does it all signify? We may never know, but I should like to fancy that Velázquez has arrested a real moment of time long before the invention of the camera.

Another painter I couldn’t resist thinking about was Johannes Vermeer. In the chapter The Mirror of Nature (The Story of Art) Gombrich writes:

Like a photographer who deliberately softens the strong contrasts of the picture without blurring the forms, Vermeer mellowed the outlines and yet retains the effect of solidity and firmness. It is a strange and unique combination of mellowness and precision which makes his best paintings so unforgettable. They make us see the quiet beauty of a simple scene with fresh eyes and give us an idea of what the light flooding through the window and heightening the colour of a piece of cloth.

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