Interview With Photojournalism Legend David Burnett
David Burnett has been an award-winning photojournalist for more than four decades. He has been named one of the "100 Most-Important People in Photography" by American Photo magazine, and is a founding member of Contact Press Images, the New York-based photojournalism agency.
David was generous enough to answer a few questions about his work and career.
Last August, you wrote an article called “A Tyranny of Ones” which I thought was fantastic. This was on the heels of the Olympics, of course, where a photo of you holding the Speed Graphic made a bit of a splash on line. What’s it like to shoot the Olympics with a Speed Graphic?
Well, at least in London, I think I was the only guy dumb/smart/available enough to actually try and shoot something on big film. You immediately lose all the advantages which you get with digital—checking exposure immedately, checking focus (especially critical with lens-tilt pictures), and all the usual stuff we've become so fond of.
It seems that experimentation is a big part of your photography. How do you balance that with the demand to “get the shot” for the press? Have you arrived at a situation where you can just go out and make your type of pictures?
I have to say that sometimes I'll take a flyer on a story. Carrying the Holga in the 2000 campaign was like that; it wasn't a big deal to do it, and sadly, once they saw it was all tied up, they didnt do much about it. It was terrible for me, since I had a couple of good snaps [Al Gore] but eventually the good stuff rises to the top, even it you don't get a million accolades for them. I really like trying out new things. I loved some of the 1920's work of the OLY games, and I was quite inspired to draw back to the older methods. For portraiture it's a bit easier, but even in sports action, hey, it can happen if you try and figure out just what you're looking for. That said, I like the feel of the 4x5 cameras, and the surprise when someithing actually WORKS.
What is it that draws you to sports? What I like about your work is that you’re conscious of the wider context. It’s not just about the game, but also everything that surrounds it. Do you get a rush out of the drama of sporting events?
It's not like I do a lot of sports between the Olympics. There is a world of sports photography out there which is filled with some great shooters. I sometimes find myself sitting/standing next to them at the OLY games. We trade pointers, though I think I probably get the better part of that deal.
A few years ago you released a book, “Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley in Jamaica and Beyond.” What was it like to photograph someone like Bob Marley? I’m sure our fans would enjoy a few pointers about making portraits!
I travelled to Jamaica for a week to photograph the newly emerging "reggae" world, including Bob Marley. It was, in a way, the best—only one PR guy with us, and he was there just to make sure we were getting to the right place for the interview. So, somewhere in those old negatives (Tri-x, a great film) are a few pictures which really reflect Marley's gift. I loved being able to travel a year later, for a couple of days, with the band in Europe. I'd taken a hint from Alfred Wertheimer, who spent so much intimate time with Elvis when Elvis was a 19-year-old kid, and in the midst of discovering what he was about.
You recently spoke at our Event Space. The title of the event is great – “Shooting Film in the Digital Age, and Other Conundrums.” I suspect it’ll draw some ardent film photography devotees! What is it about film that still makes it magical for you?
I have always loved the idea that with film, no matter how great you are, something could go wrong. And there is something quite wonderful about the tummy-buzzing that you get, when you re trying to get a set of pictures together, and have NONE of the assurance you might have with digi as you shoot-look, shoot-look your way through it.
And lastly, what do you have in store for this year? Anything we should keep our eye out for?
A few wonderful speaking trips—Australia and Dubai, and maybe China. I love travelling and seeing things which are still registered as NEW in our book. Always exciting.
Thanks David! Click HERE to watch David's recent talk at our Event Space.