"Rudy Burckhardt," Acne Paper, No. 14, Spring 2013.
Rudy Burckhardt was born in Basel in 1914 and photographed throughout the Mediterranean, as well as in the Caribbean, in Mexico, Maine, and other parts of the States, but he is associated today largely with his mid-century photographs of NewYork City. Through dedication to a life lived at the margins, he gained his ability to observe and catch the multitude at equilibrium — producing innova- tive images of midtown, at midday, in the middle of the year, in the middle of someone's life. Like his slightly older friend, poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, Burckhardt had a dancer's agility. He could place himself in the midst of swirling masses, step onto the right spot, and snap his picture at the perfect moment.
Burckhardt's attitude to NewYork City can be explained partially by his back- ground. He came from an illustrious Swiss family, was educated in the classics, and had in his family tree the important art historian Jacob Burckhardt. Drawn to lit- erature and music, Rudy was expected by his family to pursue a career in medicine. Fortunately for the arts, he went to London, which was too far for their supervi- sion to reach. Rudy dropped out after a couple of weeks, preferring instead to roam the back streets, photographing.Thus began his career as a wandering artist. As he wrote in a memoir, "Coming from one of the best families in Basel, I had to work my way down to find out what life was really about, but being careful by nature and upbringing, I didn't go all the way... Drugs were not around and by the time they were, I was afraid to try. So it was traveling for me, looking for the ex- otic and for sex adventures far from home. It took a long time before I began thinking of a career. I was full of curiosity and had money to last for several years."
His meeting with Denby was propitious. Denby needed a passport photo, found Burckhardt in Basel, and swept him up into a glamorous life of worldly artists and experiences. Denby had smoked opium with Cocteau, knew and would soon collaborate with Aaron Copland, and was friends with Kurt Weil, Lotte Lenya, Paul Bowles, and Virgil Thomson, from the age-old preconceptions they felt bound by in Europe.They found that openness amid the soaring architecture and desolate canyons of Manhattan's squares and side streets. Burckhardt has stated that it took him several years before he could fit tall buildings and people into his photographic frame; he was so un- used to those great discrepancies of scale. His first photos of NewYork were done on the sidewalk, and, instead of trying for a global view, he went in the other di- rection, pointing his camera either down towards the sidewalk, highlighting fragments of figures and clothing details, or straight across the sidewalk from curb to storefront, registering oblivious pedestrians' gaits and garments as they passed.
It took Burckhardt more than 10 years to be able to synthesize his photo- graphic vision of buildings and people together. When he did, as in his 1947 photograph of the Times Building, it was with a surprising balance of figure to building.The gestures of the pedestrians are preserved for all time as the correct gestures — correct in their interrelationships from figure to figure and correct in the coherence between architecture and human scale. He perfected this view by adding a slightly angled aerial perspective. For his photos of Flatiron Building in Summer from 1947 and Astor Place from 1948, Burckhardt climbed to the tops of nearby buildings, let himself out onto the roofs, and took several shots.Whether working at street level, or peering down at the city from above, Burckhardt al- ways valued the precise moment, never wasting film, preferring instead to wait and make only two or three exposures of a given subject.This patience is part of the key to the right-time right-place feeling in Burckhardt's best work.
Burckhardt's aerial views do at least two exciting things: they present a wider view of people interacting in public space, and they raise the plane of the street so that it is much closer to parallel to the picture plane. Burckhardt incorporated into his photographs diverse lessons from his studies of classical and modern art. From Renaissance painting, we can see the sense of harmoniousness of the fig--among others. "We went to a six-day bicycle race," Burckhardt remembered, "and working-class bars on the wrong side of the Rhine. Once, [Edwin] demonstrated a ballet step in the middle of town, and I was slightly embarrassed."
Only slightly, though. Burckhardt soon followed his new friend, first to Paris, where they went to gay transvestite bars and saw Picasso's recent paintings in a gallery, then to NewYork, where they began living together in 1935 in an empty loft at 145West 21st Street. Denby lived there until his death in 1983.
Were they lovers? Burckhardt provides this answer: "What was Edwin to me? Not a father, not an olderbrother, not a teacher... not much of a lover (nei- ther was I), rather a friend I could always rely on." We may take from this statement two things: they were lovers, and their love affair rather quickly set- tled into a lasting bond of sharing life and thoughts,images and sounds, together.
They met Willem de Kooning as a neighbor,
ures; they all are balanced in relation to each other, the image frame, and the cultural context. From modernist painting, on the other hand, we see Burckhardt highlighting a shallow picture plane, as his friends de Kooning and Gorky had been doing in their paintings, which at once gives his pictures a particular sense of space and also provides them with striking formal elements.
Another key to the success of Burckhardt's best NewYork City photographs was his ability to in- sinuate himself into any cultural context in which he found himself. One of his main principles in his street photography was never to ask permission. He also never used a hidden camera, as Walker Evans did in his photographs in NewYork subways. Burckhardt loved the daily dance of NewYorkers in midtown. He referred to their ability to create their own choreography, seeming not to pay atten- tion to each other, just barely avoiding collision. He loved to photograph in NewYork because, he said, people did not give a damn whether you photographed them or not. when de Kooning's kitten appeared on their fire escape during a rainstorm. They would occasionally help de Kooning out with some money — this was
ten years before his first gallery show — and he would occasionally give them a painting. Burckhardt and Denby began accompanying de Kooning to all-night sessions at Stewart's Cafeteria, drinking coffee (they could not afford alcohol), and talking aesthetics and world situations with Arshile Gorky and other painters trying to get beyond the influence of Picasso. It was the 1930s, and as Denby re- called in an essay on that decade, there was much talk of the Spanish CivilWar but not much disagreement in political terms. Denby and his friends were in some way looking for a life outside of politics, a way to make art that expressed human concerns without the limitations of political parties or rhetoric.
Later, in the 1950s, Burckhardt would photograph for a series in ARTnews magazine that documented artists working in their studios. He photographed de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Alex Katz, Marisol, Hans Hofmann, Philip Guston, Nell Blaine, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and many others. His photos of artists are different from any other photos of artists. Burckhardt being an artist himself and a photographer used to disappearing in the crowd, other artists were unselfconscious around him.
Whether at work or in repose, he made them feel at home. From his first years in NewYork, Burckhardt exhibited a desire to collaborate,
and he began making 16-millimeter films, without studying the technique, as no film schools existed then. He made short films with witty story lines, often con- tributed by Denby, and starring his constantly evolving cast of friends — first Copland, Bowles, and Thomson, then poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara, and artists Rivers, Freilicher, Porter. In the 1960s, Burckhardt made films with an even younger generation — artists Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, Rackstraw Downes, and Burckhardt's second wife,Yvonne Jacquette (his first, Edith Schloss, also painted, wrote, and acted), as well as poets Ron Padgett, Alice Notley, David Shapiro, and others.
Burckhardt came to NewYork, as did de Kooning from Rotterdam, looking for the absolutely new, unfettered by old ways of thinking and acting, a place free.
Having learned to encompass theWhitmanesque scale of Manhattan's grand architectural humanism, Burckhardt, when he returned to Europe, was able to see the old world with new
eyes. He and Denby fell in love with Naples in particular and collaborated on a book of sonnets and photographs entitled Mediterranean Cities, published in 1956. In an essay, Denby, referring to Naples' children, wrote, "Ancient Naples has chosen for itself the sweetest luxury of any city." Burckhardt remembered that Naples was the only place in the world where people actually asked to be photographed.
Burckhardt and Denby had collaborated on an earlier book, In Public, In Private, published in 1948. In that book, they paired Burckhardt's photographs of NewYork buildings and people with Denby's poems about the city. Denby refers to his friend by name in several of his poems and wrote poems to go with Burckhardt's photographs. He also wrote this, in a 1954 essay entitled "Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets":
Sunsets turn the red-painted houses in the cross streets to the flush of live rose petals. And the summer sky of New York for that matter is as magnificent as the sky of Venice. Do you see all this? Do you see what a forty- or sixty-story building looks like from straight below? And do you see how it comes up from the sidewalk as if it intended to go up no more than five stories? Do you see the bluish haze on the city as if you were in a forest? As for myself, I wouldn't have seen such things if I hadn't seen them first in the photographs of Rudolph Burckhardt. But after seeing them in his photographs, I went out to look if
it were true. And it was.
A truly reciprocal relationship, then, in which each in turn learned from the other, learned, and leaned on, and supported, until no further support could be given. Burckhardt was alone with Denby at the farmhouse they owned in Maine on the night Denby decided, with his friend's approval, to take his own life. Denby's death, followed by Burckhardt's sixteen years later, marked the end of an era, an era of urbane bohemia in NewYork City, an attitude and ambiance one can clearly sense in those vivid moments turned into enduring images years before by Rudy Burckhardt on NewYork City's midtown avenues.