Sunday, January 20, 2019


© René Burri / Magnum Photos

By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

In 1961, six years following his nine page gorgeous portfolio of black and white images published in the July number of the mythical Camera International Magazine of Photography which brought him worldwide recognition and two after becoming full member of Magnum Agency, René Burri got this great picture of Korean women entertaining American soldiers in Tae Song Dong (South Korea), near the North Korean border, with his Leica M3 Number 984743 loaded with Ilford HP3 ISO 400 black and white film and coupled to an 8 elements in 6 groups Leitz Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAMWO 11108 Version 1 1958-1969 in chrome mount and featuring spectacle viewfinder attachment (because the M3 hadn´t got frame-line for 35 mm focal length), shooting handheld at f/4 and 1/30 sec.

This image is a vivid example of the fulfillment of a photojournalist highest aspiration: to become invisible in the thick of the action, going unnoticed and getting the picture.

It can be clearly seen the great prowess and mental strength of Burri, who is able to cope with the pressure and risk of being seen by the nearest prostitute, choosing the most adequate diaphragm and shutter speed and above all waiting for the most precise and meaningful instant to press the shutter release button of his 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder camera.

It is a highly instinctive shot, based on tons of experience and talent, made a split second before the Korean woman wearing a pearl necklace can discover the photographer. The timing is perfect, resulting in an engaging picture for any observer, in which Burri has managed to capture the meaningful facial expression of the main subject of the picture, being at an exceedingly short ditance from him, as a key ingredient to convey the story.

© René Burri / Magnum Photos
Besides, Burri´s elegance and subtlety on quickly composing become apparent, with three powerful diagonal lines created by:

a) The almost utterly naked right shoulder of the closest woman to the camera ( her blouse seems to be about to fall) and the right arm of the second Korean woman being sitting on a sofa in the background and whose right hand is leaned on the American soldiers´s right inner thigh.

b) The left black military boot of the G.I in the background and the right white shoe of the woman with him, which are aiming in the same direction, id est, towards the main characters of the picture located in the lower right area of the image.

c) The upper torsos and heads of both Korean women, visibly slanted on the right, towards the faces of the American soldiers.

René Burri, a man with great sensitivity and a deep knowledge of body language ( who he had already shown five years before when he made his essay on a school of deafmute children in Zurich and would foster during his impressive reportage " Zen " for Du magazine number of December 1961 on Japanese monks training Kendo in Tokyo Waseda University, where he used the same Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 1 SAMWO lens, getting his famous b & w vertical picture on page 59 of a Kendo master in short sleeves playing the gong, also made at f/4 and in which a second man can be glimpsed out of focus on top left background of the image) had always a remarkable insight to wisely read human contexts and know when he could get the picture, so before pressing the shutter release button of his

Leica M3 serial number 984743 from 1959 used by René Burri to get his iconic picture in Tae Song Dong (South Korea). The camera appears in the image attached to a Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 DR without its close-focus attachment. During late fifties and early sixties, the formidable Leica M3 (the best 24 x 36 mm Leica rangefinder camera ever made, featuring an exceptionally bright and sharp 0.92x magnification VF still unbeatable in XXI Century, sixty five years after its inception in 1954) was the most important photojournalistic photographic camera for the time being along with the also extraordinary reflex Nikon F1, to such an extent that between 1959 and 1963 a figure of 75677 units of the Leica M3 were sold worldwide (the total quantity between 1954 and 1968 would be 226178, an unprecedented success for a 24 x 36 mm mirrorless rangefinder camera). 
© jmse

Leica M3 camera he realized that the Korean prostitute nearest to him was utterly with her five senses aimed at seducing the American soldier on far right of the image, with the back of his head towards the camera.

And the photographer decided to shoot at f/4, putting the focus on the couple located in the right foreground, since it dawned on him that it was the most meaningful action core of the image, while simultaneously rendering the second Korean woman and American soldier in left background (sitting on an armchair and kissing each other) out of focus but with their contours pretty discernible at f/4, something that would have been more difficult if the chosen diaphragm aperture had been f/2 or f/2.8.

René Burri could have used f/8 or even f/11 to get this picture (because the room is lit by natural light, in the same way as happened in other photographs also made in 1961 by the Swiss photographer in premises like this located in the village of Yon Sul Gol ) and obtain much more detail in the background persons, but the photograph would have been excessively blunt and with much less impact.

The image aesthetics of this black and white picture is very nice and bears the hallmark of classic non aspherical Double Gauss symmetrical optical scheme lenses crafted for use with black and white chemical emulsions and generating exceedingly beautiful vintage image aesthetics, particularly in synergy with ISO 400 highly versatile films like

© jmse
the Ilford HP3 used by Burri to make this photograph and whose outstanding acutance works like a charm in symbiosis with the great character of lower to medium contrast (since it is a lens optimized for use with b & w films), smooth tonal transitions and very beautiful and creamy bokeh delivered by the

The focus tab of the Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAMWO 11108 Version 1 can be seen on top right of the image, while the high precision optical attachment googles to couple it to the Leica M3 finder and create the specific frame-line for 35 mm lenses appear in the lower area of the picture showing the two screws fixing the device to the lens, whose barrel and mount are made of chrome brass, while the very smooth focusing helicoid is manufactured with brass and aluminum. 
© jmse

8 elements in 6 groups Leitz Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAMWO 11108 Version 1 designed by Walter Mandler at Leitz Canada factory in Midland (Ontario), following the classical Double-Gauss scheme but adding two further elements, with a weight of only 150 g and highly miniaturized dimensions, which provided great comfort of use along with acceptable optical performance at maximum aperture (though it suffered from a lot of vignetting and softness on the corners) and very good sharpness stopping down from f/4.

Optical formula of the Leitz Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 1 designed by Walter Mandler in Midland (Ontario) and manufactured in both Canada and Wetzlar. Presented at the Photokina Köln 1958, its optical formula including a lot of rare earth glasses and exotic coatings was optimized by Mandler to achieve best results at f/4 and f/5.6, being likewise a cult lens, because of its unique subtle gradation of the out of focus areas, its gorgeous cosmetic beauty and an exceptional mechanic construction greatly made by Hans Karl Wiese, an outstanding Leitz Canada fifties and sixties specialist on the mounting of optical elements during the assembling stage of the objectives, and Horst Haseneier, a true optical genius sporting a painstaking artisan profile and a consummate expert in the grinding and polishing of those optical elements. In addition, already in 1957, Rudolf Seck, Head of the Applications Laboratory at Leitz (Wetzlar), had made abundant tests with several prototypes of this lens sent from Leitz Midland (Canada) to evaluate its performance in real use by professional photographers (something that Leica has always prioritized over the MTF graphs of its lenses on assessing their true optical and mechanical virtues), realizing its very good quality from f/4 onwards, unique vintage image aesthetics, versatility and duration keeping identical behavior during a lot of decades of intensive use.

Diagonal right back view of a Leitz Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 1 SAMWO made in Wetzlar (Germany) in inverted position, where can be seen the exceedingly robust and top-notch mechanical construction of the lens, with profusion of aluminum and brass, and the also top quality googles. Though this lens could even be considered poor by today´s design standards with Leica M stratospheric aspherical lenses yielding exceptional resolving power and contrast at widest aperture or if the comparison is made against the non aspherical Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 4 Bokeh King (which meant a milestone in amazing balance between classic and modern look), the Leitz Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 1 SAMWO used by Burri to get this iconic picture is a good lens to differentiate foreground from background subjects, its classic rendering of image is very special and beautiful thanks to its creamy transition of tones, and the medium to lower contrast it delivers results in more glow and blooming around highlights, without forgetting its nice bokeh thanks to its 10 blades diaphragm and a thoroughly studied specific degree of aberrations intentionally preserved by the optical wizard Walter Mandler to achieve that very nice appearance of the out of focus areas. 
© jmse
Front view of the googles attached to a Leitz Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 1 SAMWO for the Leica M3 camera. The mission of this first-rate optomechanical attachment is to generate the specific brigh-line frame for 35 mm focal length (the M3 lacks it, since its bright-line frames correspond to 50 mm, 90 mm and 135 mm lenses for which it is optimized). The machining accuracy of the metals is breathtaking, in the same way as the anodizing of its surfaces, oozing elegance and becoming a relish to behold. Needless to say that the precision adjustment of the two visible screws is impressive. In addition, the optical quality of the uncoated glasses featured by the rectangular window to be coupled to the VF of the M3 camera and the rounded one to be connected to the rangefinder window is very good (to minimize the inevitable lowering of viewing contrast through the camera finder and preserve as much as possible the unsurpassed brightness and sharpness of the 0.92x VF of the Leica M3). Moreover, this auxiliary optics attached to the finder is a masterpiece of precision for a correct alignment and focusing, because the slightest loosening could produce misaligned viewing. 
© jmse

René Burri has been one of the fastest photographers ever when it came to getting pictures, faithful to his usual statement  ´ for me photography is a way of saving something which nobody expected, not even me, but then I was ready just to catch like a fly in the flight ´, to such an extent that often he simply let him be surprised.

In addition, as well as being a world-class photojournalist, René Burri was a concerned photographer worried about human suffering and he does want to convey a powerful message with this image : what can be seen in it is an aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953) which had devastated the economy of the area, with widespread havoc everywhere, a high death toll among men and many women having been forced into prostitution to survive.

Portrait of a very young 23 year old René Burri included on page 296 of the Swiss Camera magazine of July 1956. He had began working with Magnum Agency one year before, thanks to the genius Werner Bischof, who realized Burri´s huge gift for photography and with whom he had developed a great friendship since early fifties until his death in 1954.

René Burri was one of the diachronic maestros in the use of 35 mm format rangefinder Leica cameras, whose very small size, low weight, lack of swivelling mirror enabling a constant vision with no darkening whatsoever at any moment, accuracy of their rangefinder even in dim light conditions, a vast assortment of highly luminous primes, exceedingly short shutter lags (time elapsed between the moment in which the photographer presses the shutter release button and the beginning of the exposure itself) and rubberized cloth curtains of the shutter, whose sonority is almost imperceptible, make possible to shoot handheld without any trepidation and with an exceedingly high level of discretion.

Detail of the shutter release button of the Leica M3 and its gear train under it visible on top right of the image. This mechanical horizontally travelling focal-plane shutter featuring rubberized cloth curtains designed by Willi Stein, Dr. Ludwig Leitz and Friedrich Gath in which the shutter speeds were formed by control cams and a gear train as a delay mechanism, in addition to feature from 1957 a dial with uniform geometric calibration for the exposure times (unlike Barnack´s original shutter from 1924 in which shutter speeds were not calibrated in uniform intervals), was exceptional for the time and very reliable. Albeit René Burri´s mastery, talent and experience were the key ingredients to get the picture of the Korean Women Entertaining the G.Is (it is the photographer and not the gear who creates the picture), it isn´t less true that the Swiss photographer perfectly grasped that to make a highly dangerous photograph like this (with the Korean prostitute´s face very near him, at a distance of less than 2 meters), the whispering almost imperceptible noise yielded by the M3 shutter on shooting and its exceedingly short lag of 17 milliseconds were of invaluable help, because it would have been impossible to get this picture shooting handheld with a reflex camera (even the cream of the crop of present 24 x 36 mm format digital reflex professional cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EOS - 1D X Mark 2, Nikon D850, Nikon D3S, Nikon D5 and Nikon D810 deliver much longer shutter lags than the Leica M3 from 1954), whose loud swivelling mirror sound would have alerted the Korean woman nearest to him. 
© jmse

It all being particularly strengthened by the expertise and gift of this master of photography, who steadily put the rangefinder Leicas (of which Burri used different models like the analogue IIIF, M2, M3 and MP and the digital M9 and M9-P) through their paces as first-rate photographic tools.

In the image is shown Rene Burri´s gorgeous analogue Leica MP manufactured in 2003. 
© Leica Camera AG

Anyway, during the decade of sixties and early seventies, René Burri also used 35 mm reflex cameras like the Nikon F (with Non-Ai Nikkor-O 2.1 cm f/4, Non-Ai Nikkor-O 35 mm f/2, Non-Ai Nikkor-H 85 mm f/1.8 and Non-Ai 10.5 cm f/2.5 Nikkor-P lenses) and the Pentax Spotmatic (specially with the Takumar 135 mm f/2.5 lens).

Within time, René Burri became a rather cosmopolitan photojournalist travelling all over Europe, South America, North America, China, Japan, Korea, India and the Middle East, as well as being one of the pioneering great promotors of the 35 mm wideangle as photojournalistic par excellence lens, featuring more versatility in this scope than the 50 mm lenses, which had been the common choice of vast majority of world-class photographers during second half of twenties, thirties, forties and fifties who created with them a wealth of iconic pictures like Ilse Bing, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Izis Bildermanas, Robert Capa, David Seymour Chim, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Inge Morath, Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin and others, but whose true nature as short tele lens made it more difficult to use, aside from the fact that a 35 mm lens enables the photographers to approach more to subjects, so it became the most widespread choice for genres like street photography in which would subsequently excel other masters like Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, Gianni Berengo Gardin, William Klein, Lee Friedlander, Richard Sandler, Bruce Gilden and others who massively used 35 mm wideangle lenses (and frequently 28 mm ones).

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