Thursday, July 15th, 2004

Rudy Burckhardt by Phillip Lopate and Rudy Burckhardt: Selected Photographs

Book Review: Rudy Burckhardt, by Phillip Lopate
with an essay by Vincent Katz Abrams, 2004 (224 pp, $65)

Rudy Burckhardt: Selected Photographs
through September 11, 2004
724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212 262 5050

Rudy Burckhardt’s Sense of Place

Rudy Burckhardt Circles 1939
Rudy Burckhardt, Circles 1939

What makes Rudy Burckhardt unique among many great photographers of New York is his magic sense of the ratio between city dwellers and built enivornment. Arriving in New York in 1935, at age 21, the Swiss photographer felt at first “overwhelmed by its grandeur and ceaseless energy” and took some years to adjust to the “tremendous difference in scale between the soaring buildings and people moving against them in the street” before feeling ready to photograph the phenomenon.

Whether composing a timeless classic like his portrait of the Flatiron Building, (1947/48) or snapping the heels of fashion-conscious midtown passersby, he was always sure to achieve a compact of people and place. For the Flatiron shots he ascended an office building further uptown, which he compared to climbing the Alps, only by elevator. Rather than isolating the great skyscraper and making it otherworldly, as Stieglitz famously did, he swathes it amidst the vehicles and pedestrians of the flanking avenues. With its giant shadow it becomes the pulsating heart of the metropolis.

This facility for humanizing the environment while socializing its inhabitants travelled abroad, to Venice, where the Campanille and Doge’s Palace are seen from the perspective of a cat on San Giorgio’s, or Naples or the Carribean, and indoors, in photographs of artists in their studios, for instance. Instead of presenting a forced figure-ground relationship of foregrounded artist set against works or accutrements, there is a true, insider’s grasp of the rapport of maker and object. A character-defining set of Jackson Pollock at work in 1950 very literally vindicates the abstract expressionist’s famed pronouncements about being “IN my painting.” Burckhardt took aerial shots of Pollock at work; the most exhilerating offers a contrasting black and white split composition in which the artist mixes paint on one side the image while a work in progress, black swirls on a white ground, floats out of time and space on the other.

Rudy Burckhardt The Art Lovers, Florence 1951
Rudy Burckhardt, The Art Lovers, Florence 1951

Surprisingly, the handsome, deftly selected monograph just out from Abrams with its main text by novelist, poet and critic Phillip Lopate, is the first on this quietly influential photographer, who was also a painter and experimental filmaker. It joins the very substantial catalogue of his work (still the major work on the artist) that accompanied Burckhardt’s retrospective in Valencia, Spain in 1999 by poet, scholar and critic Vincent Katz, who has also contributed an appreciation to the present volume. The publication is accompanied by an exhibition of early works at Tibor de Nagy which includes a selection of vintage prints.

In a way it is not so surprising that Burckhardt had to wait for posthumous recognition (he took his own life in 1999) as he had a fateful combination of modesty, understatement, and friendship with high achievers. “So often was Burkchardt described in print as ‘under-rated’ and ‘unsung’ that he became virtually renowned for not being famous” writes Mr. Lopate, who naturally is determined to correct the record.

But Mr. Lopate acknowledges that Burckhardt’s reputation reflects his modus operandi as a street photographer: “to hide in plain sight.” Burckhardt played court photographer to the New York School painters and poets, counting among close friends Willem de Kooning, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. His onetime lover, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, introduced him to New York and remained part of his life through his marriages to the painter and critic Edith Schloss and to the painter Yvonne Jacquette (his widow).

Burckhardt was the most benign of paparazzi. He enjoyed a rich harvest in Naples where everyone really wanted to be photographed, piling up for the honor. Although he rarely asked passersby for permission to photograph them, his pictures never seem intrusive, even when they are gently voyeuristic. Among his most endearing and memorable images are those that capture a detail of a woman’s dress amidst shadows, stockinged feet and high heels, like “Midtown, New York,” (1939/40). Burckhardt was Baudelarian not just in the sense of being a flaneur, sauntering around the city open to such unprecious chance encounters as the 1978 shot of a miraculously pretty, self-absorbed girl with flowing locks leading a flock of women crossing the street at Penn Station, but also, more mystically, in the sense of capturing “correspondances” as the disks on a dress to the glass panes sunk in a sidewalk as in the photograph, “Cirles, New York,” (1934). There is often a low-key surrealism to such snapshot perceptions.

Although near-abstract compositions of the intersections of a building and pavement made sense of his professed admiration of Mondrian, Burchhardt was temperamentally incapable of purism. Even at his most abstract, the signifiers of building and person are vital. His later revisiting to his triumphant locale, the Flatiron, has a penile reflection of the skyscraper pulsate in a puddle with a man’s legs caught above, also in reflection. He was equally unsuited to social commentary. Mr. Katz contrasts his take on the American South with the hefty moralizing of Robert Frank: he wasn’t interested in illustrating injustice but in discovering truths. Cutting across genres and tendencies, he was more about perception than observation. Instead of seeing what he could find, he was more about finding what he could see.

Rudy Burckhardt 34th Street 1978
Rudy Burckhardt, 34th Street 1978

Burckhardt really needed the social for his art to work. Where a factory building’s even triplets of windows fills the whole composition, or a nude is the exclusive focus of an essay in shadow play, he is masterful enough, but dutiful. The same nude on the fire escape is less skilful but more vital in its nonchalent juxtaposition of flesh and city fabric. The miniscule passerby on the distant street below turns the model into a timeless goddess. A depopulated 1951 composition of the Ascensione, Rome, is handsome enough, but the take of tourists in the loggia in Florence from the same trip has a wonderfully casual sense of bodies communicating in space. His nature studies in Maine, which preoccupied him in his last years, are an exception to this rule; in his often anthropomorphic trees he found a subject where the environment formed its own society.

Burckhardt is literally a light presence among New York photographers: Disdaining the lugubrious and self-important chiarascuro and tonal richness of his contemporaries, he very deliberatly printed light. This only partly explains the gentle understatement and calm that pervades even his most daring experiments. The quirkly humor of his movies extends his lightness of being. And yet there is painful ambiguity in his melancholy self-portrait of 1984 in Searsmont, Maine, his country place. He sits in lotus position, but behind him are strewn empty liquor bottles, suggesting that meditation took its chances with less unorthodox means of transcendence.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 15, 2004.