Interviewed by critic and editor Hans-Michael Koetzle in the introduction to this substantial retrospective of his life’s work, René Burri articulates what he believes makes a good photograph: “What counts is putting the intensity that you, yourself, have experienced into the picture. Otherwise it is just a document. But if you are truly successful in capturing the pulse of life, then you can speak of a good photograph.”

Swiss-born Burri’s path towards creating “good photographs” began with formal training in 1950 at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts, primarily under the austere tutelage of Hans Finsler, a devotee of the photographic school of the “world of things”, realised in spare images reduced to their bare essentials. Finsler’s influence on the young Burri’s photographic outlook is particularly evident in the image Still Life, southern Bohemia, 1955, a study of drinks glasses on a table using natural light, and Shell of the Chapel, Notre-Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, 1955, the interior of the chapel photographed into the shafts of light created by the building’s windows.

As invaluable as Burri found his schooling in providing him with the formal and technical means to create images, he longed to practice a more engaged mode of photography however difficult that might prove to be practically. “When I left school, where we photographed only coffee cups in light, I suddenly had to chase after my pictures. It took a while before I could move at the right pace, swim with the current.” Once in the water, Burri soon became an adept swimmer. Barely out of school he was published in Die Woche, a Swiss magazine, followed by reportage appearing in Life and Camera and later in his most prolific decades 1960-1990 Paris-Match, Stern, The New York Times, and The Sunday Times magazine among others.

The numerous reproductions of his work are testimony not only to its quality and the esteem in which he is held by picture editors, but also to his capacity for travel and his desire to get himself to the scene of the action. Over the past 50 years, he has invariably put himself in the right place at the right time: Churchill in Zurich (his first ever photograph), the Suez crisis, Cuba 1962, the Vietnam War, President Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Tiananmen Square student uprising in China.

Throughout these monumental events Burri’s humanity has always been evident. As Koetzle notes, nowhere in more than 500 photographs reproduced in the book is there one image of a dead, dying or mutilated body – and that is not to say he didn’t photograph war.

Witness Burri’s image After the Six Day War, Sinai Peninsula, 1967, where photographed from a distance two tanks in the desert, their gun turrets pointing in opposite directions, resemble children’s toys rather than killing machines. What could better stress the sheer folly of war?

In this instance Burri’s take on the war says much about his approach to his subject matter and how he aims to capture the truth in a situation while simultaneously allowing the photograph to reveal the significance of the moment in time. The critic Jan Thorn-Prikker explains it thus: “His pictures are filled with mysterious meaning that springs from a documentary base. Even though his images are exceedingly beautiful, his symbols never dissolve into aesthetic objects.”

Witness American GIs in Club, Tae Song Dong, 1961 (above), where Burri’s “symbols” – the GI and Oriental woman – invite the reader to interpret the relationship as she whispers in his ear. The image is stunningly beautiful and loaded with significance at a time of East/West tensions that culminated in the Vietnam War. Is she a prostitute and he a punter and if so who is controlling and using whom? What is the confidence they are sharing and is it genuine? Is there a price to pay for the transaction, and if so what is it?

Similarly, in one of Burri’s most famous images In the Ministry of Health, Rio de Janeiro, 1960 (left), his craft – composition, architecture, lines, light – fuses perfectly with his ability to capture the pulse of life. We see this in the self-assured stride of the women walking, the louche confidence of the ogling men, and it is underscored by his “symbols”: the dress and demeanour of the men, the confidence of the women, the light and the straight lines created by the image that speak of a modernity and a newly found self-confidence of a nation on the cusp of a brave new world – the 1960s – however illusory that may have turned out to be.

For this reader, Ministry of Health is the apotheosis of Burri’s craft in a retrospective that does justice to his integrity and commitment of half a century’s standing. Compiled by Koetzle, with evident devotion and care, and also by Burri himself, this collection is a historical document of second half of the 20th century. Its key events are witnessed, its significant players – Churchill, Castro, Gorbachev, Guevara, Sadat, Picasso, Mao, Kennedy – recorded for posterity, and all undertaken with enormous humanity, humility and skill.

Gordon Miller