Okay I admit it.
My first thoughts were: he’s never going to answer back.
Maybe a polite email saying sorry I’m too busy or sorry not interested.
But I did it anyway, sent David an email and a couple of hours later I got this message:
“hi Paulo.. id love to participate… send me something… and off we go”
By the time I was learning to walk, David was in Vietnam…
By the time I was in middle elementary school, Time magazine was making a cover with David’s picture of Ayatola Khomeini……
By the time I was giving my first kiss, David was traveling with Bob Marley…
David Burnett is one of greatest photo journalists of all times and he has a well deserved spot in photography books.
He’s also a gentleman who toke a part of his time to answer my questions.
Thank you so much David.
Admiration and respect.
From 79 in the Iranian revolution and your iconic portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, to Vietnam, to… a whole life dedicated to photography… any favorite cameras? Do you have that “special one” that you always carry around?
For years, in the film era, really, I made most of my “living” (the pictures you HAVE to do) with reflex cameras: until 1978 with Nikon F/F2/Nikormat EL, after 1978 with Canon: AE1, F1, F1n, and then all the EOS cameras. But the pictures which were the “get to,” the ones which I made perhaps more for me than for the client, were shot with a Leica M4, 35/2 and tri x. Even in the era of color which started in the late 1970s, that camera always had b/w film.
There was just no question, that if all else failed (batteries, access) you always had the M4 to get you a picture. I feel like I have lost a family member when I see the M4 sitting on a shelf, as it often does these days. But in the last year or so I have had the chance to shoot with an M9 digi camera, which has my 1978 Noctilux on it, and I feel that inspite of what the world throws me, I can always make a picture with that camera. It has more or less taken over the position that M4 always had, of being the one camera I would use if I had to leave the others behind.
Your passion for photography… where did it all start?
Can you “pin point” a time in your life when capturing the world through a lens became a passion?
Very early, age 17, in high school in Salt Lake City, I began to shoot for publication. I was always intrigued by the idea that I could make a picture somewhere, and that my image would be the one that others would actually see to understand or experience that moment. I was, of course, rather young and impish, and probably much more self confident than I had the right to be. But I loved that knowledge of the power of the picture, that a picture could tell a story to hundreds or thousands of people who couldnt ‘be there’ with me to see something. It began by shooting pictures of basketball games when I was 16 or 17, selling them to the local newspaper for $5 (a nice sum in 1963!) Once I had been published for the first time in a magazine (Newsweek, 1967 – a picture of George Romney the Presidential candidate, and father of the current candidate Mitt Romney) I realized that it was more my style than daily publications, and I began, through a stroke of good luck (to be seen by at editor at TIME) to shoot for TIME Magazine when I was 20, and worked for them for the next 45 years. And while there were often let-downs when your best material wasn’t used, I think we all have that feeling about our work, it was satisfying to both be published, and, now more importantly, to understand that many of those assignments permitted me to be able to spend time covering events in places I might never have been able to go by myself. And I still have, today, all those images in my library at Contact Press Images.
Was it motivated by an event like someone special giving you a camera or was it about a certain awareness of what surrounds you and the will to capture it? After all you are a photojournalist.
I think for me there was a certitude that SEEING something was equal to Capturing it. I would immerse myself in stories hoping that whatever it was I could see in front of my camera was exactly what people on the “outside” would understand and see fro that event. I was also very influenced, not only by the classic photojournalists like Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Duncan, but by the audio recordings from WW2 by Edward R Murrow, the great American radio reporter. His journalism in radio is what I wanted to try and do with a camera.
Iranian revolution, Vietnam… I can imagine things being tough for a photojournalist. Lots of gear, camera bodies, lenses, film… What kind of equipment did you use back then?
Nikon F, Nikormat, the basic lenses: 24,35,50,85,105,180 and Leica M4 35,21,50
I’m just a lame picture taking amateur and I love auto focus or, at least, aperture priority. You were doing amazing work way before camera companies came up with AF or aperture priority and your subjects, either Ayatollah Khomeini, or Bob Marley, or a war scene wouldn’t wait for you. Can you please tell me a little bit about your working method back then?
You became very fast with a light meter: early on a Sekonic incident meter, later a Luna Pro reflected light. Im amazed at how many good exposures I made. It wasn’t easy.
What kind of film did you use? I imagine black and white, of course, it’s a much more forgiving film than color film.
Tri x for B/W, and some combination of Ektachrome (E64) and Kodachrome. From the mid 70s onwards I preferred Kodachrome 64 to all other films. Great color, dramatic, spot on when you got the exposure right.
Did you developed your films on the spot when you were on an assignment?
I was not a bad printer in those days, but I wasn’t very careful as a lab tech, and i ruined a couple of jobs because of my lousy film processing technique, and preferred to leave that to the people in NY or Paris who were the pros. I did my job, and waited for them to do theirs though it meant I rarely saw anything before it was published.
Having to move fast makes you to know your camera with your eyes closed. Is that “special connection” between the photographer and his tools a true thing?
Sometimes I do one-on-one camera classes… and the one thing I find most beginners have problems with is finding comfort with their equipment. You need to spend enough time practicing that so that the physical movements of the camera become 2nd nature.
Last year I coached a woman who had just bought her first Leica, an M9, and was having issues getting her camera focused before the subject had long since moved on. I reminded her that the best thing she could be doing to advance her photography was to spend an hour a day walking around her house, or outside, eyeing things, and then putting the camera to her eye and focusing. Do it non stop for an hour and you start to improve both speed and accuracy. But it doesn’t happen by itself. Like football or chess, you need to play, to practice, to get better.
If so, do you think that’s the reason for so many photographers to have a favorite camera? Like Sebastião Salgado and the Leicas or Daido Moriyama with his Ricoh Gr1?
Your camera becomes part of you. Some folks are attuned to just one, while I tend to feel comfy with most of the cameras I use, and enjoy the value of each one: Eos 5d, M9, a number of small format RICOH point/shoots (Cx4, GRiii, GX200) Each has a thing it does best, or perhaps several things, and you just need to match that need with the right camera. A challenge since you cant always carry everything you like with you.
Do you remember the leap from fully manual cameras to the ones with some features like mentioned before. Aperture priority or auto focus? Did you felt it would help your work and your creative view or did you stuck with the old methods?
I remember the first Canon (A1) with LED metering in the viewfinder. It was the feeling we had with the space program, or something very modern, as if it had finally arrived in the camera world. I used, and still do, the A/p from time to time, but MOSTLY, at least on the larger digi cameras, I still use Manual. I want to know what the camera is doing all the time. With the point and shoots, they are so good that you can trust them.
Please correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t see a lot 35mm pictures from you these days…
Did digital replaced 35mm film format for you?
Digi has replaced 35mm film, yes, with the occasional exception of the Xpan, or when I “feel” retro, and take out my Nikon S2. Its a good exercise, to keep you sharp, working with an old manual camera from time to time. But I shoot a lot of 4×5 film, and some 120.
Using a medium format camera like the Holga or a large format one like the Speed Graphic has to do with an aesthetic attitude always looking for the best shot, for the ones standing above an image intoxicated world?
There are too many pictures in our world. We have the ability to “show” a lot of material, and so rather than be thoughtful, we just throw all the pictures in the hopper for the world to see. It makes it harder and harder for a good picture to rise above the mess that we create, though it can be done. Good pictures will usually distinguish themselves.
I can imagine you getting asked to shoot a sports event like the Olympics and deciding about what camera to take. Hum… the Olympics… fast shooting… I think I’ll take the Speed Graphics! Or taking pictures of the President of the United States. I think I’ll take the Holga!
Your choice of equipment is very brave (writing this with a smile) and you don’t get to see the results on the back of your camera right away… does it still thrills you?
I like the idea of trying something if there is a chance it will succeed. Surely with the film cameras, there is no “instant” look on the back to see if it worked or didnt. So you are operating on faith and hope half the time. But when you get a picture that you are satisfied with, the joy is all the greater.
You own those cameras, you know what they can deliver but it’s film and there’s something about film that can always escape our control but on the other hand it’s a never ending world of creative possibilities. Do you still feel that after 40 years and so many developments in the camera industry, film is your medium of choice?
I’m a realist and I understand that everything is going electronic, more and more so everyday, and it has allowed us to take pictures that weren’t even imaginable a generation ago. Yet, we KNOW that film survives. We have pictures many decades, even hundreds of years old. Who knows, in 10 or 20 years, will people remember what a TIF or JPG is? I hope so, but I think we are asking a lot to assume that there won’t be an issue with re-creating everything in a more ‘modern’ format. It will be a LOT of work. If you think I’m alarmist, just ask the photographer whose life work is on a Zip Drive, or a Syquest drive.
Do you still do some darkroom work?
Only when i clean some tylpe 55 polaroids. too bad.. and in fact some days i think i should take a year off and print 1000 prints and not take a single picture.
What is your “main” gear at the time?
Canon 5d, Leica M9, Speed Graphic, Holga… simple!
One last question and it’s always the most “dramatic” of course!
If you had to pick one camera and one lens…
Right now it would be the M9 (id like to get the new M camera from Leitz) and my 50mm Noctilux.
It was MADE to be the “one” camera.
Thank you again for the amazing answers David.