David Burnett: Photographer At Large

David Burnett has jostled for space with his fellow journalists for more than five decades, covering many of the world’s most important events. He has covered presidential campaigns, the Olympics, wars and revolutions. Yet even when working from the same photographer press area as other shooters, the New York-based photojournalist is able to record his singular take on the scene before his lens. Burnett’s images are remarkably Burnett.

The photographer has shot for every major news magazine, including his famous coverage of the 1979 Iranian Revolution for TIME, and has garnered dozens of awards including World Press Photo of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association. He began his career in Vietnam, freelancing and capturing iconic images of the conflict, which led him to join the French agency Gamma and then to co-found legendary U.S. photo agency Contact Press Images.


Image from the February 1979 Iranian Revolution. Women gather at the Refah School, where Ayatollah Khomeini was headquartered after his return from exile in France (Canon AE-1)

Burnett is unmistakably unique—he’s often seen at news and sports events with an ancient Speed Graphic film camera. The vintage device allows him to capture images with a look that’s both historic and modern at the same time.

DPP: You often shoot events covered by a deluge of photographers, yet you’re able to get a unique angle and look. How did this approach come about?

David Burnett: Some of that emanated from sports. I look back now and I’m amazed that I never went to the Olympic Games either when I worked at Gamma or when we started Contact Press Images. I didn’t get to my first Olympic Games until after we had the agency for about 10 years. I was a big sports photo fan, but I wasn’t really a great sports photographer. I look back at my stuff from high school and college, and it was pretty terrible. I can’t believe I really thought I was Mr. Hotshot. Part of it was just the joy of having a camera and getting to see the sports up close. But just like anything else, the ups and downs help get you to where you end up being. Probably the screw-ups help more than the successes.


Image from the February 1979 Iranian Revolution. A poster of Khomeini at an anti-Shah rally, Tehran (Canon F-1)

DPP: If you never fail, you’re probably not trying hard enough. Which were the first Olympic Games you covered?

Burnett: I finally got to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. The picture of Mary Decker down on the track kind of became my official entry into being a sports photographer. I was at the right place at the right time, and you know what they say, “When good luck smiles upon you, don’t screw it up.” In a world where there are people dedicated to just shooting sports, it’s a tough thing to break into. By 1988, in Seoul, I was attacking everything with all my 35mm gear and pretty much the same thing in 1992 in Barcelona. I made a couple of pictures in Barcelona that ended up being really special. During the rehearsal for the opening ceremonies, I figured out where I wanted to be when the torch was lit by a Spanish archer shooting a flaming arrow over the gas cauldron. So I knew just where to be, and as soon as he fired, I hit my cable release with the camera set to Bulb, and as soon as the arrow had done its job, I let go. It ended up as a double-page spread in TIME magazine the next week. Two weeks later, I got the picture of the Chinese diver kind of suspended over a pool that was cut into the side of a mountain overlooking Barcelona.

DPP: You did another dramatic shot of a diver going backward off a high-diving platform. How were you allowed to get such a unique angle?

Burnett: That was Dean Panaro doing a practice dive in 1996 at the Fort Lauderdale international diving competition prior to the Atlanta Summer Games. By then, I had a Mamiya 645 with all sorts of lenses. I made my way up to the platform above him. I had been studying the photography of the Olympics in the 1920s and ’30s and noticed these simple, but very stunning graphic pictures. You got the impression that they were taken by some guy in a nice white suit and tie with a folding Voigtländer camera as the runners came across the finish line. He’s standing about 15 feet away, and he just goes click and makes one picture. There’s something special about that, getting away from the 600mm ƒ/4, 18 frames a second all of us craved. So, even though the world had changed, you couldn’t just walk up to the finish line anymore. In 1994, I started working with the medium-format Mamiya Universal with a Polaroid back on it so I could shoot Polaroid 665 or type 55 positive/negative. I hate that Polaroid type 55 is gone. It was a sublime film. Out in the middle of the field, I would shoot one picture, then pull it, peel it and put it in a Tupperware container with water, put a paper towel cut down to size over it, put the lid back on and shoot another picture. Even though it seemed like I was creating these giant roadblocks, the impediments I created for myself by using older cameras forced me to start thinking and seeing in a very different way and challenging me.


Pole-vaulter Lawrence Johnson (U.S. record holder in the 1990s) at the Penn Relays, 1996, before the Atlanta Olympics (Mamiya 7, 43mm lens)

DPP: One of your most iconic sports photos is of a pole-vaulter seemingly suspended in the air.

Burnett: That was with the Mamiya 7 with a 43mm lens at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. It’s not the kind of shot that would have been any better if I had a camera with a motordrive and shot 20 different pictures of it. You start to shoot for one frame.

DPP: How did you achieve the shot of John Kerry at a Kerry/Edwards campaign rally that looks like it’s from the 1860s?

Burnett: That was shot with a Speed Graphic the Sunday before the elections in November 2004. I started shooting with it in late 2003. I used a little bit of tilt. I found a couple of very fast 4×5 lenses—ƒ/2 and ƒ/2.5—so I was able to shoot handheld in some situations. You could get away with a 1/30th or 1/50th. I found this little $40 tripod just to help stabilize the camera when possible. In 2004, because of the war, there was a big turnout of Democrats trying to unseat George Bush—Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry. I started shooting with the 4×5 in Iowa and New Hampshire. I would get the film developed, scan a couple of negatives, then send them to either TIME, Newsweek or U.S. News with a little note saying, “I realize you probably aren’t going to run these, or you’re not doing a story, but I want you to see what I’m up to.” Every time I would send one of those pictures over, they would use it. After about two months, MaryAnne Golon at TIME said, “Let’s put you on contract; these are too good.” That spring, I did the Kerry campaign, which went into the summer, the walkup to the Olympics and a series of portraits for the 60th anniversary of D-Day all shot with the 4×5. I took the Speed Graphic with me to Athens for the Summer Games. At the same time, I was just starting with digital; I had the Canon 10D. So, at the Olympics, I was shooting a little digital, a little medium format and a lot of 4×5. When I won the World Press Photo for sports series for my
coverage of the Olympics, it caught on in a lot of places. “Wow, large format isn’t totally dead yet!”

DPP: It’s interesting that you found a series that had subject matter from the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln. “Frederick Douglass”—the most photographed person in the 19th century according to Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the 19th Century’s Most Photographed American—even showed up at the event.


At the convention of The Association of Abraham Lincoln Presenters, Michael Crutcher, Sr., portrays Frederick Douglass (Canon EOS 6D, 45mm lens)

Burnett: That’s The Association of Lincoln Presenters, which is a group of people who do these living history tours. They live much of their lives as if they were Abe Lincoln. They meet every year in different places. Last year, it was in Vandalia, Illinois, one of the former state capitals. I managed to get into the documents room of the old State Capitol, which is well preserved, just the way it was in the 1860s. Some of the series was shot with the 4×5 and some with the Canon 6D with a 45mm tilt-shift lens or a Leica M9 with a Noctilux 50mm ƒ/1.

Here’s the problem I have: To carry a Speed Graphic kit and a digital kit to a sporting event is very challenging. So I have a 300mm ƒ/2.8 and a doubler or a 1.4x. That’s a lot to carry. I don’t carry around a 400mm ƒ/2.8 much anymore. Some of the images from the Winter Olympics in Sochi I shot with the Nikon 500mm ƒ/5 mirror lens at around 1/500th of a second. The lens was made for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. I had it converted to work on a Canon body. The doughnut effect from the lens is kind of cool, but you can’t overdo it.

DPP: How did you achieve the unique shot of the horse and rider in the middle of the ring at an equestrian event?

Burnett: That was in Greenwich in 2012, shot with the Canon 5D Mark III with a 45mm tilt-shift with a red filter on it. I shot it in the monochrome mode in RAW so I still had the original color, but I could see what it looked like in black-and-white. I never got around to learning Lightroom, so I just load up my files and edit in Photo Mechanic, then process in Photoshop.

DPP: What put you on the road to photography?

Burnett: I started photography in my junior year of high school, September 1962, but I was very interested in radio, as well. By 1958, I was the 12-year-old nerdy kid who listened to Bob and Ray every night on KSL in Salt Lake City on an old AM radio. There’s a great book, it’s called The Murrow Boys, about the CBS team Edward R. Murrow put together including Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid and Richard C. Hottelet starting in the ’30s. When I think about how I was drawn to journalism by radio reporters as much as photographers, I think it must have something to do with wanting to create with pictures the same kind of impression these reporters did with their words. In Saigon, I tried to break into radio. There was Group W, Metromedia, all these media outlets. My friend Bill Dowell, who had this great three-octave low radio voice, said to me one day, “Well, if you want to come over and try it, all you have to do is read this…” I’m trying to read this piece, “Khmer Rouge blocking Route 4, Phnom Penh’s only land route to the sea…Dave Burnett, Saigon.” It took me about 10 times to get it, and I’m sure in New York, they were wondering, “Who is this doofus?” Vietnam was the beginning and end of my radio career.
DPP: Another major conflict you covered was the Iranian Revolution. How did you work in such an unpredictable environment where there were no clear battle lines?


John Kerry rally in Manchester, Vermont, the Sunday before the 2004 election (Speed Graphic, Aero-Ektar lens)

Burnett: That was all 35mm. Among the people that were shooting there was Olivier Rebbot, a good friend of mine from New York. We would work together. It was the kind of place where it felt a little safer to be with somebody than just being out there on your own. Olivier and I were working for competing outlets; he was working for Newsweek and I was working for TIME. I don’t think anything was compromised by the fact that we were hanging out together. News-wise and creative-wise, we were taking our own pictures. We would get up at 6 o’clock every morning, go to the airport and stand around in the departure lounge with all these glum people who were just trying to get on the next airplane to get the hell out of there. We had to find somebody that we could convince that it was important enough that they carry this packet of film and be met at the airport in New York, Paris, London or wherever the plane was going to hand it over.

DPP: How long did you work with TIME?

Burnett: On and off from 1967 until 2010. All those years I thought that the most important thing was whether my pictures made the magazine on Monday. You would work on a story, then wait to see what ended up in the magazine. I realize now that the most important thing was that each assignment enabled me to go out and produce the work in the first place. I’m pretty lucky as a photographer that I have almost all my work with and available to me, much more than many of my friends who have worked for the wire services in the film days when stuff was routinely thrown away. I always had a great relationship with TIME magazine.

Last year, I wrote a note to one of my editors, Arnold Drapkin, letting him know how grateful I was. My career was made possible by people like him who were sending me to places I probably would never have gone to otherwise. 

To see more of David Burnett’s photography, visit davidburnett.com.

All images:  David Burnett, Contact Press Images.

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