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Che Guevara | Rene Burri

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Iconic Photos continues its trek into the world of contact sheets. 

A minor mission of a site such as Iconic Photos is to educate its readers; accordingly, we have written about various aspects of photography, from its master practitioners to its use and abuse to lately, a year-long look at contact sheets. Many, including great photographers, believe contact sheets reveal more about a situation than an individual frame.

But, to coin a phrase, everything lies. Even photographs. Even contact sheets.

Look closely at the following contact sheet by René Burri, featuring a famous photo of Che Guevara. At the first glance, it seems to be single sequence but it is, in fact, a composite of different negatives from different cameras using different lenses.

Each week at the Magnum offices in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson would review the contact sheets submitted by younger photographers returning from assignments. It was a daunting experience, not least because Cartier-Bresson had a peculiar way of critiquing, where he would rotate the contact sheet slowly, looking at it upside down and from all possible angles, studying the composition and scrutinizing the content.

René Burri realized that with Che’s pictures, the critique would be more incisive than ever (Cartier-Bresson himself was in Cuba for a Life assignment simultaneously with Burri, but was denied closer access to Che). Burri wanted to make sure that he didn’t miss a shot. He went on the assignment with three cameras, and submitted to his mentor a composite contact sheet. It was unclear whether Mr. Cartier-Bresson caught this sleight of hand.

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In a Guardian interview from 2010, Mr. Burri remembers visiting Havana:

Laura Bergquist, a star reporter with Look magazine, had met Che Guevara at the UN in October 1962, after the Cuban missile crisis. She bugged him so much that he told her: “If you get permission from the CIA or the Pentagon, you are invited to Cuba, and I will show you what is really going on.” She got the green light from the Americans – and I went with her.

We arrived at Che’s office on the eighth floor of the Hotel Riviera in Havana. At that time he was the number-two man in Cuba – he was the minister for industry, and director of the Banco Nacional. His face was on the two peso note. I saw the blinds were drawn and, after we were introduced, I asked him in French: “Che, can I open the blinds? I need some light.” But he said no. I thought, well, it’s your face, not mine.

Immediately, Bergquist and Che started a furious ideological dogfight. She had to take back a story for the Americans, who were still angry about the revolution, and he was trying to convince her that what happened had to happen. For two and a half hours I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn’t look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince her with maps and graphs. She was a chain-smoker, and he occasionally lit up one of his cigars.

We went back to New York, and Look ran a 16- or 20-page story. This picture was only an eighth of a page. It certainly wasn’t a photo essay, like the one Henri Cartier-Bresson did for Life magazine at the same time. He was in town with us, but only got to shoot Che at a press conference.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm

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