René Burri

René Burri likes to see his career as a series of happy accidents, which is often just another way of editing out all the downtime and boring bits, the months of no work. But you have to admit it did start with a bang. There he was, 24 years old, mooching around in northern Spain, when he read in a newspaper that Picasso was expected at a bullfight in Nimes the next day. He drove through the night, checked into a hotel early the next morning – and to his surprise was ushered straight into Picasso’s bedroom.

A party was in full swing, and the artist was sitting up in bed, directing a small group of musicians and friends. He nodded at Burri – yes, he could take pictures – and the result is a wonderfully vivid sequence of portraits, Picasso laughing and clapping and betraying not the tiniest sign that a private party has just been interrupted. Burri, of course, took it as a sign from God: with luck like this, he was a born photographer.

So, right from the start, he has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time – and for not making a nuisance of himself once he gets there. He photographed Che Guevara in Havana in 1963, just a few months before the revolutionary disappeared from public life. He got stuck in a lift with President Nasser of Egypt, and took a funny picture of him laughing while a bodyguard looks on murderously.

Of course, for every picture Burri took, there was another he didn’t. He is now 71 and semi-retired (photographers never stop), and says that you could fill volumes with the stories he didn’t get, the places he didn’t go.

The first time he was commissioned to go to Cuba, in 1958 at the height of the revolution, he got drunk the night before he was due to fly, cried off, and went skiing at home in Switzerland instead. He once saw Greta Garbo coming down the road towards him in New York, wearing dark glasses, and at the very last moment put away his camera; she was just too forbidding. In the desert in Egypt, he saw the blackened hand of a corpse reaching up through the sand, and he didn’t take that picture, either. Burri believes in a notion of tact, or what he calls dignity.

Other people might call it cowardice, but he feels strongly that there are some lines you just don’t cross. “I have incredible respect for [war photographers] Don McCullin and Larry Burrows, but you pay a price. What does Don photograph now? Landscapes, pictures of flowers.” This is partly a moral position – photographers can get addicted to war, he says, and he met a lot of them in Vietnam – but it is also a simple instinct for self-preservation. Three of Burri’s great mentors at Magnum – Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, Chim (David Seymour) – lived dangerously and died young, and he always felt it was a tremendous waste of their talent.

For all that, Burri has seen a lot of war. Since joining Magnum in 1959, he has covered conflicts in Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and China. He says he prefers to photograph the build-up to war, or its aftermath, rather than the violence itself. One of the first big projects he undertook was a portrait of postwar Germany, starting in the bleak mid-1950s and published in book form in 1962.