11/09/1965. On 9 November, 1965, the lights went out in New York. A power outage began around 5.30 pm, hitting this city’s millions as well as a wide swathe of Canada and the US states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey and New York. In total, 25 million people across 200,000 km2 were affected. At the time, René Burri was in his friend Elliott Erwitt’s studio, on the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. He was cutting his film about China when it suddenly went dark. Burri, realised his good fortune. Carrying his Leica and eight rolls of film, he stepped out into the dark chaos, which was illuminated only very occasionally, and took shots until past midnight. Burri’s series is not strictly reportage. It is a meditation on light, or, rather, on its absence. It offers thoughts on seeing—and therefore on photography itself. We enter a gallery of poorly-lit sculptures. Strobelike light falls on the exhibition pieces. Parsimonious, vague, precise.
They exude a great poetry. No fact is referenced. Burri tells a fable in which something people take for granted—light—vanishes. For an incalculable time, the metropolis had to behave differently. Through the night, René Burri walked around with a flash, covering events. Parsimonious lights made sculptures, and René Burri bore witness to them in his work. He developed the films in New York in November 1965, made contact sheets, and chose isolated images. Some were developed in small format (18 x 24 cm) but then went into a box. In the end, the series was never published. Only in 2004, thanks to Hans-Michael Koetzle, the curator of the major retrospective ‘René Burri’, it was rediscovered in the photographer’s archives. This exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles shows for the first time roughly 40 shots. A book of the series will be published by Moser Verlag, Munich.