"Street Dance: The New York Photographs of Rudy Burckhardt," Picturing New York: The Art of Yvonne Jacquette and Rudy Burckhardt, Museum of the City of New York, 2008.
Rudy Burckhardt Exhibition, Curated by Vincent Katz
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm.
Frank O’Hara (“A Step Away From Them”)
I was right there with the camera, in the crowd.
Rudy Burckhardt (Man In The Woods)
Photography, as has been pointed out, resides in a different realm from painting. The European tradition of painting and the modern capabilities of photography were intertwined in Rudy Burckhardt’s life and art in ways that differentiated him from most other photographers of his time. Although many photographers studied painting and were friends with painters, Burckhardt saw and composed as a painter. He also thought and worked like a poet, living in a world somewhat apart from the professional worlds most photographers trafficked in.
The Basel-born artist, who moved to New York in 1935 and lived there until his death in 1999, was aware of the dichotomy posed by photography. Writing of the education he received as a youth, Burckhardt noted, “I had good grades, except for drawing and singing, and when I wanted to make pictures of what I saw around me, I turned to photography, where the lens of the camera does the drawing for you, instead of your own clumsy hand.” Two things are striking about this statement — one, that Burckhardt, while still a teenager, had the clear ambition to make pictures in some serious way, and two, that he forewent traditional modes of picture-making (drawing, painting, sculpting) in favor of something much more modern.
Born in 1914 to a family on the right side of the Rhine (his grandfather had been a general and a judge and his father ran a silk ribbon business), Burckhardt spent most of his life trying to escape the aristocratic confines of his upbringing in the city he later characterized as “lonely and empty and proper and clean.” He soaked in the Greek and Latin literature he read in school and must have been exposed to classical art as well (the famous art historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, was a relative).
Until 1934, when he was 20, Burckhardt does not seem to have been aware of the major movements in Modern Art — Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism — let alone Purism, with one of whose adherents, Amedée Ozenfant, he would later study painting in New York. He had access to a camera, but does not seem to have known of such photographers as Stieglitz and Steichen, who had for some time been staking out a place for photography as an art form of comparable stature to painting. Instead, fueled by ancient poetry, Burckhardt would wander the streets of Basel, taking photographs. I believe it is safe to say until he left Basel to study medicine in London in 1933, he had not been exposed to modern art.
He soon dropped out of medical school, preferring to wander London’s streets, photographing with a 9 x 12 centimeter ? is this standard way to denote, or cm? German camera. Although he did take a slightly askew photograph of Piccadilly Circus, most of his images are of anonymous, dreary side streets or bridges, similar in tone to his early photographs of Basel. In contrast to images by other photographers of this era, Burckhardt’s photographs of London do not call out for social change, despite their bleakness. They register their melancholy subjects almost casually, setting a neutral observational tone that would be characteristic of much of Burckhardt’s city work. However, they are not unpassionate or uninvolved. On the contrary, Burckhardt’s photographs are notable for being humanistic and sympathetic portraits of their subjects — people particularly, although the same can be said of his portraits of locales. By neutral, rather, I mean something close to non-critical. He presents people in visual terms, as individuals defined by their appearance, rather than as examples of fixed social types.
A year after his London stay, in 1934, Burckhardt was able to wander around Paris, foregrounding people in his city compositions for the first time. “In Switzerland,” Burckhardt observed, “when somebody wanted to be an artist, they went to Paris, which was about four hours away by train. I went to Paris, and I liked it a lot, but I didn’t want to live there. It seemed not far enough away from Basel.” At that time, he was not going to the Louvre or the city’s other museums or art galleries. Using a hand-held Leica 35 millimeter camera, which had just come on the market, Burckhardt photographed people at leisure, milling about. “I was mostly just wandering around,” he observed, “and I went to these fairs that were in the middle of the boulevard.”
Certainly, the catalytic event for Burckhardt was his encounter in 1934 with Edwin Denby, an American poet later to become known as one of the most perceptive dance critics of his age, and at that time a dancer himself. Denby, needing a passport photo, looked up Burckhardt on a friend’s advice, and the two were never separated for long after that, until Denby’s death in 1983. Denby took Burckhardt to the wrong side of the Rhine, “Kleinbasel” as it was known, and embarrassed his young friend (Denby was 11 years Burckhardt’s elder) by demonstrating a ballet step on a Basel street. With Denby, Burckhardt’s interest in art was kindled. In 1935, they went to Paris together, where Burckhardt saw a Picasso exhibition of women with mirrors, which first opened his mind to the possibilities of modern image-making. Three years later, he would be making photographs influenced by Mondrian’s rectangular compositions and minimal spaces.
The same year, 1935, Denby returned to New York, inviting Burckhardt to join him. Denby, who had enjoyed several years in Europe, associating with such figures as Jean Cocteau and Kurt Weill, decided it was time to move back to New York. He encouraged Burckhardt to leave his provincial surroundings to move to the city that was quickly becoming an alternative intellectual capital, with its heady mix of European expatriates and, soon, refugees, as well as those Americans also drawn to it. Having come into an inheritance, Burckhardt took the opportunity to flee, leaving behind Basel, Switzerland, and Old Europe for the frontier of the new Metropolis.
Burckhardt’s memory late in life of those early days in New York was that the scale of the city was something for which he was not prepared. “When I arrived in New York in 1935,” he remembered, “I was amazed at the difference in scale between the people and the buildings. They have no relation in scale. In Europe, at that time, there were no high buildings at all, and people had a relation to the size of their buildings, the only exception being the cathedral.” For two years, Burckhardt was not able to imagine how to photograph New York.
Although he did not photograph until 1937, he jumped into filmmaking earlier. Obtaining a second-hand 16-millimeter Victor camera with a one-inch lens, Burckhardt began confidently. His first film, 145 West 21 (1936), was a light comedy, starring Denby and composer Aaron Copland, with cameos by Virgil Thomson and Paul Bowles. He also made a film with Joseph Cotten and Virginia Welles (wife of Orson). Film would become a major part of Burckhardt’s artistic output. His 101 16-millimeter films represent a significant contribution to American art filmmaking, for which Burckhardt was accorded the recognition of a 1987 film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His films, many of which document parts of New York, often bend and create genres, including story films, travel films, diary films, and film-poems (those that use audio recordings or subtitles of poems by contemporary poets and those in which the form of filmmaking becomes poetic in itself).
Filming made-up stories with friends seemed possible, when photographing the city did not. This tells us something about Burckhardt’s attitude to the city and to art-making. He wanted to give himself the time to be able to absorb the scalar difference, to feel it as part of lived existence. His restraint tells us something else. In the same way that his choice in Basel of the camera over the pencil indicated a strong desire to make pictures, so in New York the decision to wait until he could understand the city’s scale indicated a serious ambition to be able to portray New York appropriately, not haphazardly.
When he did begin to take photographs, using a view camera and a tripod, it was to focus on details of architecture — edges of buildings, borders where the decoration of one entry ended and another began, meetings between façades and sidewalks, standpipes and other sidewalk hardware. When he first photographed London, people were barely visible, yet their presence was implied; similarly in these first New York pictures, there is a great implication of scale in their stripped down images. Knowing what New York buildings look like, one is likely to extrapolate from a façade fragment the immense extent of that façade and what lies behind it.
Shortly after he made his first New York photographs of architectural fragments, Burckhardt began to take a similar approach to human subjects. Often pointing his camera down at an angle, he would capture only parts of people passing — their legs, their feet, their hips, their arms, and the clothing and footwear covering those body parts. Another approach was to stand at the edge of the sidewalk near the gutter and to photograph towards shop fronts, capturing people as they walked past. These were the first New York photographs in which Burckhardt allowed himself to look up and to try to see entire human figures through the camera. In both shooting down toward the plane of the sidewalk and shooting the action between an observer and a shop front a sidewalk’s width away, Burckhardt showed a quickly learned awareness of a basic structural element of the Modern picture — a shallow picture plane. His early New York photographs demonstrate an understanding of Cubism as well as an exploration of compressed space similar to that already being undertaken by his painter friends Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky.
There is a deep interconnection between Burckhardt’s films and his photographs. Burckhardt created mesmerizing senses of movement, of lightness — lightness of foot, but also lightness of color and of mood. Both the fragmentary views of bodies on sidewalks and the scenes of people in motion in front of stores have an undeniably cinematic quality to them. For Burckhardt, photographing and filming partook of similar processes: “I started film very early. I was filming the same things I was photographing. There was no great difference, really. I went out in the street, and I was watching how people move, making up their own choreography.” By the end of 1939, Burckhardt had made a body of photographs that, on their own, should have earned him an important place in the history of photography.
While he was later central in many ways to the New York art world, photographing artists for the journal Art News, collaborating with them on films, associating with them, viewing their exhibitions, it would be a long time before his photography would become known outside of that world. Even as his films became known by the underground film community in the 1960s, partly through the support of Jonas Mekas of Anthology Film Archives, his photographs were still not accorded significance within the photographic canon. This rankled Burckhardt, and he later spoke out in an interview in defense of these early works: “I’d like to talk about these photographs, the first ones I took in New York. They’re totally everyday-like. Sometimes I had like x-ray vision, and I could take six or seven that were interesting in one day. They are original, because at that time most people did social-conscious photographs. They used to say, ‘You have to take photographs showing how people live on the Lower East Side. You have to live with them to understand them, and then you can get their soul.’ What I did, I went midtown where people totally anonymously pass each other, and they just walk around. They don’t look at each other, and they just seem to avoid collision. Much later, Merce Cunningham said that he was trying to choreograph the way people move in the street, and his dancers used to move by each other, never looked at each other, never touched each other. It was very abstract, like the way these people [in my late 1930s photographs] move around.” An argument can be made that the factors that made Burckhardt’s photography hard for 1930s audiences to understand — its lack of a social conscience, its detached, elated attitude towards its subjects, and its willful fragmentation of subject matter — are precisely the elements that would find resonance in the later work of artists as diverse as Cunningham and the contemporary photographer Jack Pierson.
Burckhardt’s arrival in New York paralleled the earlier arrivals of two other photographers who had spent time in Europe, Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans. Burckhardt, like Abbott and Evans, pursued an unaffected portrayal of the city, in opposition to the atmospheric one favored by Stieglitz and Steichen (figure 1). Evans was, like Burckhardt, a sensitive youth, but he was more tuned in to modern developments. A fan of Ezra Pound and James Joyce, Evans had gone to Paris in 1926, at the age of 23. He spent a year, frequenting Sylvia Beach’s famous Shakespeare Company bookstore. After returning to New York in 1927, Evans gradually turned to photography, partially with the encouragement of an enterprising friend, Lincoln Kirstein, who included him in a photography exhibition at Harvard and published his work in his magazine, Hound & Horn. By 1938, three years after Burckhardt’s arrival in New York, and at the same time he was beginning to photograph the city, Evans had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and published American Photographs, destined to become widely influential and to establish Evans as a major voice in the visual culture of the United States.
Berenice Abbott was another American photographer who did a stint in Paris; unlike Evans, she stayed for eight years during the 1920s, becoming Man Ray’s assistant and eventually taking over part of his portrait clientele. With help from the art dealer Julien Levy, she also bought Eugène Atget’s photographic archive on his death and then worked to bring the photographs of that master of a dying Paris to light. On her return to New York, Abbott resolved to document a New York she thought would soon change. The Museum of the City of New York was instrumental in supporting this project, serving as her institutional sponsor and giving her solo exhibitions in 1934 and 1937. In 1939, her book, Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott, was published. Abbott’s method, as described by Elizabeth McCausland, was more controlled and time-consuming than Burckhardt’s: “Amid traffic, haste, vibration, crowds, confusion, she has set up her 8 x 10 camera, leveled it off with a tiny carpenter’s spirit level, composed the image on the ground glass, focused it, calculated exposure, and taken the picture.”
Evans had a big ambition, as did Abbott, though they worked differently. Abbott’s greatest work may be her Paris portraits; her pictures of New York give us much useful information, but they often do not convey much feeling about the city’s inhabitants. Her aerial shots use buildings as Modernist compositional elements; in general, in her street photography, she was more interested in buildings than in people. Evans was closer to Burckhardt — he liked to go to the wrong side of the tracks — but his photographs are intended to shock or at least surprise (figure 2). While his images were perhaps not created with the same intention of drawing attention to social ills as, say, Lewis Hine’s or Dorothea Lange’s, still Evans did want to make provocative pictures of little-seen sides of American life. He wanted to expose unseen American things, and that is what made him an important influence on a later generation. Robert Frank, in particular, in his 1958 publication, The Americans, picked up where Evans left off in American Photographs, updating Evans’ vision of a misunderstood, disturbing America. Since Burckhardt’s best images are not disturbing or haunting, like Evans’ or Frank’s, and since they are not dramatic, like Abbott’s, they have often been overlooked. Although his photographs are not unsettling, neither are they “precious,” the criticism leveled at them by Evans himself. Rather, their energy emanates from Burckhardt’s painterly approach to photography.
Burckhardt painted throughout his life, and he became deeply involved in looking at painting. It is in painting that one finds the key to his approach to photography. Edwin Denby believed that Rudy Burckhardt’s photographs were the only ones he knew with visual interest all over. He may have been thinking of de Kooning, whom he greatly admired, when he said that. Indeed, every part of a de Kooning painting like Asheville, 1948, is occupied by active visual energy (figure 3). Similarly, a Burckhardt photograph such as Untitled, New York (34th Street and Broadway, 1947, plate 29) shows not only the movement evinced in the pedestrians and cars crossing the busy intersection at Herald Square, but also impeccable composition, within which every part of the photograph is activated. The pedestrians form a band covering the lower third of the image, while above a classically balanced array of three banks of buildings, left, center and right, completes the structure. Even the negative space of the sky and street canyons surrounding the middle building is carefully proportioned, and the three building groups complement one another visually — they vary in terms of tone and detail, and their differences counterbalance their similarity in size within the picture.
Yet, all this is merely the setting. Seduced by the harmoniousness of the composition, the eye begins scanning the picture for details. As in most of Burckhardt’s street photographs of people, there is an almost endless supply, beginning with the central subject, a frieze of women walking across 34th Street the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Avenue. One can observe their clothing, their shoes, some with high heels some without, which create a rhythmic pattern in the center of the picture, highlighted by the figures’ shadows on the street beneath them. A woman near the middle is wearing a flowery summer dress with short sleeves, handbag draped in the crook of her elbow. A woman near the right edge is wearing a lightweight, skirt suit, while one stepping into the frame at left is wearing a dark dress and hat. Each woman has her own particular way of walking, counterpointed by the two men in business suits walking away from them at the left rear.
Looking into the background, one sees that the composition holds yet another tripartite configuration: one that goes into depth, the sides being nearer the viewer than the center, which is nearer than the distances created by avenues framing the center block. The eye is led ever deeper, finding decorative motifs in the designs of street lights and lamps, signs, a more distant range of people, crossing on the other side of 34th Street, the cars and trucks waiting there at the light, boxy signs that say, “NO TURNS,” and then one notices a policeman back there, his cap and badge recognizable. There is all this and more — the signs for “Amity” trucking and John David “Timely Clothes” on a high billboard.
The found phrases in Burckhardt’s photographs highlight his sensitivity to language. In this photograph, one could argue, the words indicate that he, and by extension the viewer, is in the right place at the right time, and therefore “no turns” are necessary. Everyone in this scene is behaving civilly to one another, a first step towards “amity.” The clothes in Burckhardt’s vision are “timely” in the sense of giving evidence of their era and in the deeper sense of contributing to a propitious moment. This sense of being in the right place at the right time in New York’s midtown is original to Burckhardt and would later be adapted to become the central contribution of the poetics of mid-century’s great poet of the city, Frank O’Hara.
The witty use of language, compositional verve, all-over interest, and sense of propitiousness are elements that recur over and over in Burckhardt’s street photographs from the 1930s and ‘40s: “The detail is accidental, but you do have the feeling that it is a decisive moment. Things happen in a split second, and you do have the feeling that it’s the right split second.” The “decisive moment,” Henri Cartier-Bresson’s contribution to photographic discourse, was appreciated by Burckhardt, yet Burckhardt’s moments, while decisive in the formal sense, achieve unexpectedly intimate expressions, a result of his ability to introduce himself into the situation, whether in an artist’s studio, a foreign country, or on the street of New York.
“At the same time,” his statement continues, “I never used a hidden camera. I never did that. I was right there with the camera, in the crowd. I was never doing peep-hole photography.” This may have been a dig at Evans, who did devise a way of hiding a camera under his coat to do his famous series of passengers in the New York subways during 1938-41. Burckhardt did his own subway series in 1947, and the results are quite different. For one thing, there is the occasional person aware that Burckhardt is taking the photograph, but more than that (as he had developed a way of moving in and taking a photograph in the moment just before the subject was aware of it), Burckhardt’s subway photographs, like his sidewalk photographs, are exquisitely composed. Part of the difference is that Evans’ subway images were cropped later, in the studio, giving his photographs the feeling that each one is interchangeable with the others, while Burckhardt’s show more compositional variety. Evans’ tend to be straight on (he would often sit opposite a subject), while Burckhardt’s have a variety of angles, proximity to the subjects, combinations of figures, and relationships between figures and subway car fixtures.
After spending the years 1941-44 in Trinidad as a troop photographer, Burckhardt returned to New York at the height of its post-war euphoria. It was during the next few years that he created the photographs that have become most strongly identified with him. The expansiveness of his images of these public places in New York — Times Square, Astor Place, Madison Square — does not, however, have to do with any national mood of self-congratulatory release. Just as his photographs of the 1930s do not give evidence of the Depression or, on the other hand, celebrate images of glamorous celebrity, but rather create compositions from the movements and details of average New Yorkers walking in midtown, so now, almost ten years later, his post-war photographs present a view of a capital city that is, at least in theory, democratic, but whose vision is more one of the city as a natural phenomenon than something novel or Surreal.
In Flatiron Building, Summer (1947, plate 32), as in Untitled, New York (34th Street and Broadway, c. 1947, a strong formal composition draws the eye into the photograph, leading it down the two avenues that flow past the angled sides of the Flatiron Building in the center. The most arresting feature of this photograph is the huge, down-turned shadow of the Flatiron, which occupies the bottom half of the center of the photograph, ending precisely where the frame ends and creating other angled forms of light on its sides. Beyond its suave interplay of large-scale forms, the entire picture has a deeper motivation, which is to serve as a setting for the daily activities of a group of individuals — citizens or visitors, but at this moment, participants in the life of the city. The same applies to Astor Place I (1947, plate 33), where the view is from lower down and more personal detail is observable, and Times Building (1947, plate 35), the first photograph in which Burckhardt was able to include pedestrians in the same frame with a tall building.
Burckhardt’s account of photographing the Flatiron Building is illuminating as to his whole approach to photography: “This is a well-known picture I took one day. By accident, I got on top of this building when the shadow was about the same size as the building. They had elevator men; there were no automatic elevators. I'd ask for the top floor, pretending I had some business there. I'd look for an exit sign, and if I was lucky, I'd find an exit door and get up on a roof with these wonderful, completely unexpected, views. I think I just took one shot that day. This was taken on a 2-1/4 by 2-1/4 camera, not a Leica 35 millimeter. It is a square format camera. You had 12 photos on the roll, and I didn't take many of them.” His custom not to take many photos, while not using a tripod, came more from clarity of vision than a desire to be economical.
Berenice Abbott photographed the Flatiron Building from street level and also from above but preferred the street level view (figure 4). She wrote, “There is no doubt in my mind that this building looks better from street level, and I was careful in picking the precise location to set my camera.” The photograph she took shows the building as though uprooted from its context; it becomes an artifact rather than an anchoring structural presence in a vast public space, as in Burckhardt’s interpretation.
Unlike Abbott, who carefully planned her views of the city and often did several exposures in order to be sure to get one she liked, Burckhardt was more interested in capturing the right mood, something to do with the air. He rarely photographed in inclement weather, wanting to depict people and scenes at their airiest. The tonal aspect of Burckhardt’s New York photography becomes clear in his aerial views, including a series he did of rooftops, some of which he titled Chelseascape plate ?). Scanning one of these photographs, one finds a highly sensitive range of tones, from dark blacks to ever lighter shades of grey. Clearly, Burckhardt’s decade of looking at painting affected how he saw the city, which in turn enabled him to make photographs of it with increased tonal depth.
The city photographers closest to Burckhardt in attitude to subject are Garry Winogrand and Helen Levitt. Levitt’s photographs of children on sidewalks share with Burckhardt’s an interest in urban architectural detail, possibly inherited from Evans, and a sense of the sidewalk as a social space. Her figures tend to be more isolated than Burckhardt’s, and, as opposed to being part of the incessant movement of life he captures, are often forlornly paused in a quiet setting (figure 5). Burckhardt’s images possess surprising tonal richness; his prints, however, do not always live up to that richness. Burckhardt’s living in the moment, his aloofness from serious expectations, gave him great powers as a photographer but could have a negative effect when it came to making prints and taking care of his archive. Working more in the realm of the idea, Burckhardt could be careless with his negatives, which could end up scratched, and also with his choices of paper. This attitude, it can be argued, is part of his bohemian appeal and gives his prints an unpretentious quality that separates them from the world of professional photography, which is done for hire and upholds established technical standards. It also helps to explain why he was sometimes not considered serious by serious photographers. In Helen Levitt’s prints of Harlem children, there is an evenness to the darker tonalities that one occasionally finds lacking in Burckhardt’s more superficial printing.
Winogrand shares with Burckhardt a love of fast-moving sidewalk action, of stylish women moving with self-assurance through midtown. His depictions of people, though, including women, tend toward the freakish, aligning him more with Diane Arbus and Frank than with Burckhardt’s more welcoming view of humanity. While Winogrand may be frankly admiring of female beauty, making statements like, “Women are better than men; not only have they survived, they do prevail,” he still isolates them in space, highlighting the awkwardness of their dress and their surroundings. The awkwardness is partly the result of the wide-angle lens he likes to use, which spreads out the edges of the image, giving it an unreal quality. The only Winogrand in his DEP Editions portfolio [title? NYPL Special Collection w/o title] that has the mood of a Burckhardt — 1969, New York City, New York —pairs the carefree yet meaningful playing of two girls with the careful, calm diligence of their mothers on a sun-dappled Avenue of the Americas (figure 6). The picture is grainy, its taken-on-the-spot quality rendered with the same sense of movement as in a Burckhardt. It is not a pristine picture technically. Compositionally, though, it is precise, the central adult duo standing on the dividing line between safety and danger, echoed by the child-duo and two cars that seem to circle their island of safety. Winogrand’s characteristic use of a wide-angle lens, however, flattens that view out, rendering it less immediate than in Burckhardt’s more constricted lens.
In addition to mastering the central locations of New York City, Burckhardt maintained a parallel, and different, trend in his work until the end of his life, a trend that began in his earliest photographs, that of an explorer of the city, who wanders far to discover spaces ordinarily unnoticed or not commented on by their inhabitants. In New York, Burckhardt developed a special fondness for Astoria, Queens. It was there that he took, in 1940, the photographs that made up the artist’s book An Afternoon In Astoria, a facsimile of which was published in 2002 by the Museum of Modern Art. One photograph from that group is titled A View From Astoria.(plate 16) In it, one sees in the distance Manhattan’s skyline, punctuated by silhouettes of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, while in the foreground one sees a railroad yard with a boxcar, a roadster pulled up to it, an engine in the distance and three station houses straddling the tracks. In Burckhardt’s photograph, these non-descript, workaday structures obscure most of the famous skyline, while the top and bottom of the image are dominated by expanses of sky and beat-up tiled ground. This picture has a particular meaning to it — obscuring the famous by the mundane, the expected by the unexpected — but it also has a formal beauty that one finds in many other Burckhardt photographs of Queens, of the canyons formed in Manhattan by jagged shapes of sky visible on streets between tall buildings, and in more meditative images of sidewalks, fire hydrants, manholes, and street crossings.
In his later years, Burckhardt devoted much time to filmmaking, painting and occasionally to writing. There were periods, such as the 1960s, during which he did not photograph as prolifically as he once had. Collaboration became more and more important to him. As new generations of poets, painters, and dancers would come to New York, Burckhardt would befriend many of them, often inviting them to work on films together. Through the years, he made films with writers John Ashbery, Joe Brainard, Jim Carroll, Clark Coolidge, William Corbett, Larry Fagin, Elisabeth Fox, Kenneth Koch, Rochelle Kraut, Phillip Lopate, Alice Notley, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Bob Rosenthal, Harris Schiff, Peter Schjeldahl, Daniel Shapiro, David Shapiro, Christopher Sweet, Anne Waldman, Arnold Weinstein, Trevor Winkfield, and Bill Zavatsky, dancers Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks, Grazia Della Terza, William Dunas, Douglas Dunn and Dancers, Dana Reitz, and Paul Taylor Company, musicians Alvin Curran, Elliott Carter, Bill Cole, Ron Kuivila, and Christian Marclay, and visual artists Joseph Cornell, Elaine de Kooning, Rackstraw Downes, Jane Freilicher, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Charles Simmonds, and Neil Welliver, not to mention his first wife, Edith Schloss, his second, Yvonne Jacquette (both painters), and his sons, Jacob and Tom (filmmaker and painter respectively). Edwin Denby participated in many, as writer or actor or both. The influence all these people had on one another was surely mutual, but it is clear that Burckhardt influenced many of them. To quote just one, Denby wrote, “Daily life is wonderfully full of things to see. Not only people’s movements, but the objects around them…the ornaments architects make around windows and doors, the peculiar ways buildings end in the air, the water tanks, the fantastic differences in their street facades on the first floor… As for myself, I wouldn’t have seen such things if I hadn’t seen them first in the photographs of Rudolph Burckhardt.”
When Burckhardt did begin to photograph extensively again, which he did from the early 1970s to his death in 1999, he often returned to themes and ideas that had interested him earlier with different emphases in terms of focus, composition and physical relation to his subjects. His photographs of reflections of the Flatiron Building, taken in the 1970s, have an elegiac quality to them, as though Burckhardt were seeing an image of primal importance to him reduced or codified (plates 42-44). The surrounding plaza is stripped away, the building itself is gone; only the reflection remains, its reflected beauty hauntingly tangible. A series of photographs of shadows of street lamps and figures cast on sidewalks is similarly reduced (plates 52-53). Burckhardt had used shadows within larger compositions in a painterly way from his early days. In the 1970s, he limited his compositions to the shadows themselves plus the feet and ankles directly connected to those shadows. The compositional expertise he long exercised achieved new clarity in photographs such as V-Back (1985, plate ??), which calls to mind a Renaissance altarpiece in the equipoise of its three turning figures, and Untitled, New York (ca. 1985, plate 39), in which each element of the picture is perfectly weighted, and, as Edwin Denby observed, there is visual interest throughout.
It is informative to compare Burckhardt’s later subway photographs to those of other photographers (figures 7-8). To take one example, Sally Stein used flash to take photographs in the New York subway in 1977, and the resulting pictures provide information about the time, but the flash clearly alerted her subjects to her presence, so that they are posed by the time the exposure is made. More significantly, the lighting of the subway car is drastically modified. Burckhardt’s avoidance of flash correlates with other non-intrusive habits: he rarely used a tripod; the vast majority of his work is hand held; as mentioned earlier, he never did hidden-camera photography; he took few exposures of a given subject; and he did little cropping.
His subway photograph Joe DiMaggio (1975, plate 48) is an excellent example of his later work. Burckhardt has zeroed in on a young couple standing near the closed subway doors. She is looking at him with skepticism or disbelief; he purses his lips as he prepares his answer. The details are exquisite, particularly the still-fresh ice-cream cone in her hand, bought on a warm day, symbolizing her freshness, but also the drily humorous inclusion of the former baseball star looming over them, a fading relic that may call to mind the “Coca Cola Goddess” of Astor Place in another era, DiMaggio’s era.
What is particularly striking about this, and many of Burckhardt’s later photographs of people, is the way he has managed to approximate himself to them, to insinuate himself into their discussion, without, apparently, being noticed. He made himself one of the crowd, a quiet observer providing a service to the city. He did not see freakishness, and he does not ask viewers of his photographs to see it. He did not see social ills, although he knew they existed. Rather, he noted appearances and presented people, places and things in a sympathetic light, not idealized by long exposures or mutated by flash but close to how it was. As the complexion of the city changed, Burckhardt was glad to follow those changes. He always felt drawn to people of the African diaspora, whether it was in Haiti, where he lived for nine months, in the American South, or in New York City. His late photographs contain many remarkable portraits of people of color, encountered in public spaces.
In summarizing Burckhardt’s achievement as a photographer, one can make the following conclusions. The works that are less original are those that try to show some element of commercial reality, such as newsstands or signage, on its own. The still lifes that he photographed in the mid-1940s, using found materials, seem like exercises; one can sense that Burckhardt was not particularly interested in these objects. He found ways to energize such subject matter, by combining it with walking people (in the case of signage) or with spectacular views of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge through his studio window (in the case of the still lifes, plates ??). The aspects of his photography that are most original include his early minimalist, Mondrian-like aesthetic; his downward-focused fragments on sidewalks; his ability to keep visual interest in all parts of a composition; and his sensitivity to texture and to tonal variation, particularly in the lighter areas. This tonal lightness conveys a psychological lightness, which, Phillip Lopate has written, comparing Burckhardt to Evans, is “more playful and tender, less melodramatic, more true to the spirit of the everyday.” One could add that Burckhardt’s ability to see things as they are and picture them as timeless, as in the poetry of O’Hara and James Schuyler, written decades later, often opens into an appreciation of humanity unparalleled in other street photographers.
The critic Robert Storr characterized Burckhardt’s work as “non-judgmental,” saying, “he saw things you wouldn’t see, because he wasn’t driving at social documentation. He wasn’t driving at a particular psychological read, although there’s lots of psychology in his pictures. He wasn’t anticipating or determining or ruling on what would make a good photograph — he was looking. His decisive moments tended to be other people’s indecisive moments.” The non-social-conscious nature of Burckhardt’s work made it difficult for early photography audiences to get, but it lines it up with a lot of photography that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Elements of Burckhardt’s work that might appeal to contemporary photographers like Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson, and Wolfgang Tillmans include Burckhardt’s relaxed, informal approach to picture-making, whether that be a decision about what light to use or where to place oneself to capture a scene or the ability to let go of sharp focus if that will give the photograph a feeling of energy or motion (figures 9-10). These younger photographers would also identify with Burckhardt’s portrayal of the city, in his films, as a context for liberated, bohemian behavior. Burckhardt quietly influenced generations of artists, from Edwin Denby to Frank O’Hara and beyond. Who knows? Maybe there is a young person about to move to New York, who will one day find something in Rudy Burckhardt’s photographs that we have not noticed.
Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964), p. 16.
Rudy Burckhardt, interview in Man In The Woods: The Art Of Rudy Burckhardt, film, by Vivien Bittencourt and Vincent Katz, 2003.
Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1989, 148 ), writes, “Although photography generates works that can be called art . . . photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made.”
Rudy Burckhardt, “How I Think I Made Some Of My Photos And Paintings,” Rudy Burckhardt (Valencia: IVAM Centre Julio González, 1998) ,194. . In addition to the text cited above, the IVAM catalogue contains the texts by Rudy Burckhardt, “How Did I Meet Edwin?” and “How I Think I Made Some Of My Films,” and essays by Robert Storr and Vincent Katz.
Interview with author, January, 1998.
Interview with author, January 1998.
Interview with author, March, 1998.
Interview with author, January 1998.
The film retrospective was curated by Phillip Lopate.
In his first New York apartment, which he shared with Denby, Burckhardt had de Kooning for a neighbor, and he would often visit the older painter’s studio, occasionally buying his work.
Rudy Burckhardt, interview in Man In The Woods film (see note 2). : The Art Of Rudy Burckhardt, film, by Vivien Bittencourt and Vincent Katz, 2003.
Elizabeth McCausland, Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1939) page #? I DO NOT HAVE PAGE # — CAN THIS BE LOOKED UP AT MCNY?.
Cited by Burckhardt in “How I Think I Made Some Of My Photos And Paintings,” Rudy Burckhardt, IVAM (see above), . 194 .
The poet and critic Frank O’Hara, a central figure in the New York School of Poetry that arose in the 1950s, favorably reviewed the poetry of Edwin Denby and participated in two Burckhardt films.
Rudy Burckhardt, interview in Man In The Woods film (see above note 2 9 ).
Interview with author, January, 1998.
Berenice Abbott American Photographer (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982) , 162 .
Rudolph Burckhardt, An Afternoon In Astoria (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002), with an essay by Sarah Hermanson Meister.
Edwin Denby, “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets,” in Dance Writings and Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), . 258..
Phillip Lopate, Rudy Burckhardt (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2004), . 14..
Robert Storr, interview in Man In The Woods film (see above note 2 ).