Rudy Burckhardt, A Short Biographical Sketch
Rudy Burckhardt was born in Basel, the son of a ribbon manufacturer related to the eminent Renaissance art historian, Jacob Burckhardt. He was the product of a rigorous Swiss education coupled with a childhood where his freedom to dream was guaranteed by ribbons. Rudy studied Latin and Greek and was preparing to become a doctor. At that time, he was already taking photographs sporadically around Basel.
A trip to London in 1933 changed everything. Ostensibly, he went to study, but after a few lectures, he never went back. What he did instead was to wander around London, taking photographs. These turned out to be his first "city series," of which many more were to follow. Rudy is essentially a city person. He thrives on the heat a city gives off, the energy of collective desire. Even when he started spending summers on Deer Isle, Maine, in the fifties, he would often leave his wife and baby there to make the long trip back to hot New York. I believe he did that for no other reason than to stand on a street corner, hear cars honk, and watch people walk past.
The early London photos have not been seen much. I myself saw most of them only for the first time this year. (Rudy is nonchalant about his work, leaving negatives in drawers for years, printing only a scattering of his shots from time to time). In these photos, he catches London off-kilter. Except for one shot of Piccadilly Circus, the rest are of obscure streets, grim lines of brick row houses or lonely intersections. In them, one becomes involved with the hulking forms of buildings or bridges, rather than with the pathetic stories behind their facades. Rudy has it both ways -- he shows the real world without limiting it by social critique. He reveals the multiplicity of the mundane, the beauty of ugliness. The inconspicuous makes its presence felt in the work of the nineteen-year-old Rudy, and he himself is revealed as a frequenter of offbeat solitude, a straying boulevardier. During a visit to Paris in 1934, Rudy advanced his photographic ambitions. For the first time, he shot people close-up -- Parisian women in trams, on a carousel. By this time, the rudiments of his mature style were already evident: an unaffected fluency in the textures of his streets and skies and a discerning humanism that allowed him to depict people from all walks of life in their best possible light.
Returning to Basel, Rudy was discovered by Edwin Denby, the American dance critic and poet, who came to him one winter day to get a passport photo taken. They remained friends for almost fifty years, living, traveling, and working together. Denby introduced Burckhardt to the sophisticated world of the cultural elite -- among Denby's friends were Jean Cocteau, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, and the New York art world. In the fifties, Denby and Burckhardt collaborated on a book, Mediterranean Cities, which paired Denby's terse, difficult sonnets with Burckhardt's expansive and arresting photographs, such as the almost-choreographical series of people "suspended" in white space on a sunlit piazza in Siracusa.
Rudy moved to New York in 1935 where he has lived ever since, despite his frequent rambles. Rudy and Edwin's next-door neighbor on 21st Street was Willem de Kooning, and the three became fast friends. Rudy and Edwin bought his paintings, and de Kooning painted Rudy's portrait. Rudy and Edwin went to Haiti, and there began Rudy's first love affair, with a beautiful Haitian woman named Germaine, whom he photographed -- the first of a lifelong series of portraits of women. Rudy documented his travels -- to Haiti, Morocco, Peru -- not only in photographs and 16mm films, but also in perspicuous journals. He lived with Germaine for nine months, entering into the life of the Haitians in such a way as to enable him to create images of uncommon generosity. Far from stealing the souls of his subjects, Rudy reveals their moments of joy or solemn introspection in the context of shared experience. Whether out of romantic intrigue, aesthetic desire, or anthropological curiosity, Rudy has constantly pursued what we might define as "enlightenment."
When I read Rudy's journals, published in the long-out-of-print Mobile Homes (Z Press, Calais, 1979), I realize how much he has seen and experienced. He served in both the Swiss and U.S. armies; in World War II, he applied for a position as a Signal Corps photographer in Trinidad and spent most of his stint there, evading the turmoil of the front. In Tangiers, in 1955, Rudy made the following entry in his journal, I had a glass of wine in a well-kept French establishment decorated in modern Moorish style. Some men were just about to leave, and the girls were kissing them good-bye pleasantly. It was very French and very business-like, and I could feel the iron rule of the Madam. "And now to your places, girls," she said just then, but I left and went inside with a quiet, rather sad Spanish girl instead, who was standing in a doorway down a darker side street.
Nowadays, Rudy divides his time between New York and Searsmont, Maine, where he has had a house for thirty years. At eighty-two, Rudy, who still works primarily in photography and film and delights in his small, erotic, "postcollages," has also made a breakthrough in painting, moving beyond scenes to startling close-up views. Rudy has made over seventy films, including brilliantly poetic accounts of snow falling on New York fire escapes, set to Haydn; crazy scenes of traffic, and Times Square at night in the 1960s (in color) set to The Supremes. Rudy has always had a great feel for music, whether classical or pop, country and western, Haitian, or rock'n'roll. In the film MOBILE HOMES (1979), there is a sequence of Rudy's son Tom, skateboarding. The accompanying soundtrack is a song by Blondie. Rudy never seems like he's trying to be hip; it's just suddenly there, startling and natural, like a black-eyed Susan bobbing in the breeze.
Rudy has the ability to make everyone he photographs look beautiful. This is very difficult to do. He achieves this because he sees and appreciates people as they are. Some of Rudy's films are narrative, but the majority are not. Neither are they documentary. They are film poems, rhythmic developments of delicate images. He does not start out with a preconceived idea but simply shoots things -- usually people -- and, later, lets what he has shot determine the shape of the film. Similarly, his films are characterized by their exquisite form, but the form is not imposed on the subject; rather, the subject determines the formal path taken. His work is classical, revealing a profound sense of balance and proportion, not just in visual terms, but in the relation of sound to image, silence, rhythm. There is often great variation in his films, from scenes that go by in real time, to fast edits that produce an effect like animation, to actual animation, to time-lapse animation (as in the beginning of MOBILE HOMES, where we see a bunch of bananas on a window sill ripen over several days in several minutes). His technique is also humanizing, in its preference for hand-held camerawork.
There is a tendency in contemporary art to want to separate oneself from the rest of humanity, but Rudy's tendency is exactly the opposite. He seems to want to connect with as much of humanity as possible. It is a tendency that has kept him open and youthful.
Rudy Burckhardt has had a charmed life, and, though it would sometimes seem that he does everything casually, without a thought, it is in fact not by luck but by shrewd and forceful decision that he extricated himself from the comfort and safety of his upbringing to make that leap into the void and become an artist.
Leaving Rudy's building on a warm September evening, the sky still retaining vestiges of light, night coming on, I look up and see a picture-perfect shot of the Empire State Building, close-up, foreshortened. Despite its gaudy colors, it makes me glad to be a New Yorker, at least one more time. Rudy has allowed me that glimpse.