Self-portrait, Searsmont, Maine, 1984.
This is a handsome book about the self-taught filmmaker and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, who was also a painter and a writer and, from the 1930s to the 1990s, the well-known photo-chronicler of New York artists and their studios. While the essays by Lopate and Katz discuss the full range of Burckhardt’s activities, the illustrations are his black-and-white photographs only, in the largest and best quality plates they’ve been treated to so far. This matters, because Burckhardt, who believed that negatives should be printable by anyone (Sickert thought the same way about etching plates), was not a crisp-edge, super-detail photographer. He shot for the overall tonal subtlety, the variations and distinctions in the shadows, that gave him air and atmosphere—and especially the urban haze, which has seldom been so delicately presented.
This is immediately apparent in his iconic portrait of the Flatiron Building (1947–48), but it is also discreetly true of a 1938 photograph of de Kooning in his studio, and sensationally true of a 1968 image of leg and lamppost shadows on a patched sidewalk; this shot looks like a virtuoso brush drawing by a Chinese master. For Burckhardt, things are both what they are and something else: at a filling station in Astoria, the poles, pumps, power lines, and overhead lamps turn into a sort of naturalistic neo-plasticism. When he shoots people on the street he’s attracted by an unaffected physical presence. In a 1970/78 shot of a young Latino man and woman briskly walking, no social comment gets in the way of the expansive American grace of their outstretched arms. These people are at ease with their bodies, their clothes, each other, and the environment. Burckhardt doesn’t tell you this, and that is the remarkable thing in both his photographs and his nonfiction films. As Alex Katz said of him, “He would take a camera and hold it on something and let you look at it.” This was what Fairfield Porter admired in Velázquez: “He leaves you alone.”
Born in Basel in 1914 to a patrician family that didn’t expect him to amount to much, Burckhardt, aged 21, fled the prim, stuffy stasis of his hometown and landed in New York as the (lifelong) companion to the dance critic Edwin Denby. The city appealed to them, in Denby’s words, as “unknown, uncozy, and not small scale.” On a 1938 trip to Port au Prince, Burckhardt lived for some months with a young Haitian woman: “We were a long, long way from Switzerland.” To stay away spiritually from what Switzerland represented to him was always a driving force in his life and art. During the Haitian stay he made the first of many 16mm movies, which were constructed out of lyrical sequences of images observed in his surroundings with quiet concentration, and accompanied by music (in this case by Erik Satie). Denby showed Burckhardt’s films to a gathering of his friends, including Aaron Copland, Lincoln Kirstein, and Virgil Thomson. The response wasn’t positive; opinion held that film should be the medium of movement, and in Burckhardt’s films there were motionless shots of motionless objects. Such strictures were foreign to Burckhardt, whose movies and stills seem free of manifesto constraints.
34th Street and Broadway, 1939.
Gradually, Burckhardt started to photograph the city. Denby wrote beautifully about how these photographs revealed New York: “I went out to look if it were true. And it was.” No doubt with the help of Denby, whom he called “my root teacher,” Burckhardt became astonishingly clearheaded and exigent about what he wanted to do. His modest demeanor did not advertise his internal strength. When I first met him (in the early ’60s), I mentioned an Eisenstein film; “Oh yeah, Eisenstein—he cuts too much.” He was equally clearheaded about his painting. Though he studied briefly with Amédeé Ozenfant, he recognized that his work was primitive, and he gave as exact a definition of what constitutes a primitive painting as I’ve seen.* In his later years, he was able, without greatly changing the character of his paintings, to make them more intense than the black-and-white photographs he took of the same subjects: close-ups of ferns and tree trunks in the Maine woods.
In his nonfiction films Burckhardt shot mostly what appealed to him. But he had a delightful comedic contempt for pretension, pomposity, solemnity, rank-pulling, and self-promotion. His narrative films, which he started making in the 1930s with his friends as actors, poke fun at sacred cow subjects of the moment, like psychiatry and space travel; their improvised, shoestring production style was in deliberate opposition to Hollywood’s sleek expertise. In the mid-’70s he stopped making films of this kind and adopted a form that has come to be called “diary” or “collage,” which stemmed from an unexpected transition in an earlier film, Under the Brooklyn Bridge (1953). This beautiful nonfiction film follows the demolition of a huge building and shows the workers at a lunch place and at quitting time—and then suddenly turns to a group of naked boys leaping off some old pilings into the East River; as Edith Schloss said, “Their little penises swung out like the clappers of church bells in the breeze.” Burckhardt made the idea of this transition the basis for a form he used until the end of his life. All kinds of filmed material—in color, black-and-white or animation—from all kinds of locations, with all kinds of subject matter, in all kinds of moods, are linked with one another to a sound track that is equally a montage, with readings of poems or other texts and music of all kinds. What amazes is the sense of a copious, infinitely elastic wholeness. The glue that binds all this together, made of Burckhardt’s sensibility and sense of timing, is a miracle of recent filmmaking.
Curb, New York, 1973. Rudy Burckhardt.
In his empathic essay for this book, Vincent Katz calls these films “tour de force pieces.” He notes that Burckhardt looked at people “with appreciation, without flattery,” and that he “maintained a surprising ability to appreciate the new.” He points out that Burckhardt’s art “should be seen in its totality to appreciate his full achievement”—and, I would add, to understand its true nature. Phillip Lopate’s text is a full chronological account of Burckhardt’s life and art. Presented in mini-essays with titles like “The Poet of Public Space” and “The Relationship Between the Still Photographs and the Movies,” it is full of insights: “Rudy’s eye was primarily cinematic”; and “[he was] the most musical of film editors.” Lopate sees the Basel upbringing and classical education as playing a positive role in Burckhardt’s art and, interestingly, discusses the artist’s melancholy. But when Lopate helps get a Burckhardt film retrospective at MoMA, he realizes, “I wanted something. I wanted him … to push his art to a more severe, perfected place.” To appoint yourself managerial critic to an artist is a perilous project, and Lopate is annoyed that his charge did not respond as desired. A note of scorn now enters the text, aimed at both Burckhardt and his chosen social milieu, which Lopate calls, unconvincingly, “the avant garde.” The artist Lopate wants Burckhardt to be would have shared “the same witnessing impulse as Atget’s photographs of a soon-to-vanish Paris,” but Burckhardt did not see New York that way. Lopate scolds Burckhardt for undercutting his talent with humor and for making films that were not “thematically focused”; this is to chop off two of Burckhardt’s most fruitful limbs. Lopate faults him for not pursuing his career, but Burckhardt knew what was right for him. I remember Edwin Denby telling how Gertrude Stein, when asked how she got to be so famous, said, “By writing for a very small audience.”
Rackstraw Downes is currently painting on-site in Presidio, Texas.
Rudy Burckhardt was published by Harry N. Abrams in July 2002.
*What is a primitive painting? A painting done without much skill; the finished picture is visualized beforehand, and the subject is more important than how it is painted, brought to a degree of completion, clear without ambiguity, without loose ends, as if it were the only painting ever made, outside of trends or history.
—From an essay by Rudy Burckhardt titled “How I Think I Made Some of my Photos and Paintings.”