The Olympic Legend – David Burnett

 “B/W is the founding force of photography, its singular beauty and strength carrying a visual message which is hard to equal. And while I often succumb, like so many in our trade to the ease, and speed, and yes, quality, of digital photography, I’d like to think that there is a place which my Speed Graphic will have for years to come, unfettered by the Tyranny of the Ones and Zeroes. It has become a part of my life, my family, my being. The metallic rap it makes when you ram a film holder into the back is one I never tire of.”

David Burnett is an accomplished and legendary photographer with an acute and curious eye, who has been able to travel to many corners of the world photographing the likes of Bob Marley, the launch of the Apollo 11 Mission, the presidents from John F. Kennedy  right through to the inauguration of Barrack Obama, as well as being part of many Olympics from 1984 till the present day. Yet unlike many or all of the photographers at The Olympics, Burnett sticks to tradition by shooting on his trusty 4×5 Speed Graphic Camera.

Following the weeks of the London Olympics we were able to talk to Burnett about his extensive and profound career:

Film’s not Dead: Firstly, where did your love for photography begin and what about the medium really draws you to it?

 David Burnett: At the beginning of 11th grade/ high school/ I joined the year book staff, looking for something else to do at school. With a process of elimination ( NOT illustrations, NOT literary, NOT business) I ended up on the photo staff, and when I saw my very first print develop in the darkroom, I was hooked, absolutely hooked. As I began to shoot, and slowly get published, I realised the power of the printed image, and the power that each photo potentially has to reach someone, and tell them the story of a moment that perhaps only you saw. I loved it.

Film’s not Dead: What was the first camera that you brought?

David Burnett: An old Exacta 35mm camera, with a manual 50/3.5 Tessar… very difficult to focus (so slow) and yet I found that Exacta could do amazing things if you only could figure out how to let it. I later added a Yashica Mat (120) .. and swapped the Exacta for a Pentax H3v….

Film’s not Dead: When did you make that transition from using photography as a hobby to turning it into a career?

David Burnett: I was selling pictures at age 16 to the local papers, and for me, it just seemed a logical thing to do, to try and let the sales of the pictures become not only a way of supporting myself, but of letting me do what I wanted to do in life. I was right!

 Film’s not Dead: If you had to pick one event that you have photographed that has been the most memorable and most enjoyable moment, which one would it be?

David Burnett: So many things are amazing as a witness, and yet don’t fulfill in quite the same way as photographs. I have to say that in terms of adrenalin rush, there is nothing like being chased by crowds, police or demonstrators. Yet they don’t always yield pictures, which are as amazing as the emotion you feel at the time. The same with “big deal” personalities… you know you don’t have a lot of time, but you work like mad to make the most of it. In the end, I have to say that in terms of amazing visually striking event (and for which my photographs are quite underwhelming)… The Opening Ceremonies in Beijing Olympics 2008 had me barely able to see through the finder, it was so strikingly beautiful. Some things you just enjoy as a witness, as a person, and hope that other pictures will fill in the gaps of trying to explain the visual amazing that is our world.

 Film’s not Dead: The ‘Holga Eye’ work. You have photographed a variety of people on the plastic camera, from diplomats to soldiers, athletes to street life. What have the reactions been to the toy camera and how does your shooting differ?

David Burnett: I usually try and bring the HOLGA in for a few pictures, often just a few frames, sometimes a roll or two, in whatever else I’m shooting. There is something very simple about the HOLGA, it boils the image down, like a good soup. The worst moment, perhaps, was when I was photographing the Secretary of Interior in Washington, a few years ago, and as I went to show her the camera — she’s remarked on how “different” it looked, the back fell off (not enough TAPE!!) and the film fell out. It wasn’t my most promising moment.

 Film’s not Dead: You’ve been able to cover many stories around the world, would you be able to describe to us in particular what your time in the Vietnam War was like and did it affect your photography in any way?

 David Burnett: I believe, like many soldiers and certainly many journalists, I grew up in Vietnam, forced to by the situations in which I found myself working. I have never described myself as being much of a war photographer, as such, but there is something which the stress of the moment, and dynamics of war bring to real life which is rarely seen anywhere else, I remain, at this point, 40 years later, captivated by the youth of the soldiers I spent time with, just amazed at how able they were for such young men, to carry out such tasks. (And I’m sure I would have felt the same way about soldiers from the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong side, if I’d had a chance to meet them.) My one real regret is that I was a pretty terrible caption writer, and have almost no names for any of the people I photographed then. I would love to catch up with them today, and photograph them on the other end of their lives.

Film’s not Dead: What draws you to still use film over digital for some of your commercial work?

David Burnett: Any time I can create a look, a feel, an emotion by using an ‘alternative’ camera approach, I’d like to try it. I understand that these things are full of chance. There is no guarantee anything will work 100% of the time.. (just look at all my out of focus LONDON pictures!!) but I think there is always a time to take a chance.

Film’s not Dead: You’ve been photographing the Olympics since 1984, how did you manage finding yourself in that environment and what was your first experience being an official photographer at the Games like?

 David Burnett: The Los Angeles games were my first… remember it was still the era of Kodachrome and E6. It was actually quite wonderful for the time, to drop your film, and have it back in just a few hours. That was, in itself, a real experience, as we’d never had that kind of regular turn around service, especially with K64. I loved shooting the games with Koda 64 though in most cases we needed to shoot E6 just to have the film back quickly enough to make dupes for our clients around the world. It was a mad and crazy time… TIME Magazine alone must have had 15 photographers (it was the first US Summer games in 50 years.. it was a big deal) and we were part of that team. You learned by watching the pros, and then tried to move on elsewhere and do your own thing. The one worry of the Olympics is that you end up at the Finish line with 50 or 100 of the worlds best sports photographers.. so you have to be rigid in trying to tell yourself.. “go somewhere else…. do something else… take a chance…” I was lucky .. when I did that I ended up in front of the place where Mary Decker and Zola Budd collided, and with that, I was “officially” a sports photographer.

 Film’s not Dead: Why particularly do you choose the Speed Graphic to shoot on? 

David Burnett: Well it’s not really THAT Speedy… is it. But it lets you shoot a big piece of film, with a fast lens, and in many ways, I try and mimic what I might do with a Leica or Canon and a 50mm lens. It has a chance to deliver a great negative as long as you don’t screw up one of the ten things you have to do when you shoot. I love the camera, and in the words of Nig Miller, a Life photographer in the 1960s: “These Nikons aren’t worth a damn. You hit someone with it, they go down, but they get right back up. You hit someone with a Speed Graphic, they’ll stay DOWN.”

Film’s not Dead: What was it like shooting for the first time this year at the Olympics that wasn’t for a magazine assignment?

David Burnett: I greatly enjoyed shooting for the IOC photo team. They are the folks who run the Museum and IOC Photo library in Lausanne, and you have a feeling you really are shooting for history. I quite appreciated their willingness to let me shoot with my big camera, and not be tied to having to shoot in digital for the possibility of quick turn around. I have no real idea where these photos might end up, but it was more important for me that I have the chance to shoot them, and worry about usage later on. At my age, I don’t think I have more than a few more Olympics in my bag, and I appreciate each and every one.

 Film’s not Dead: Using a 4×5 camera is a meticulous and time consuming art to gasp, you have to compose and be sure of your shot, how do you deal with this at the Olympics when everything is so fast paced?

 David Burnett: I’m pretty good with the Speed at this point, but yes, things happen quickly, for 90% of your shots you have to imagine where your subject will be, pre focus, and then hope you nail it. It’s a real challenge. I’ve missed dozens, but I think I got a few good ones.

Film’s not Dead: Also, while shooting at the various Olympic Games what were the other photographers reactions to your camera like?

David Burnett: So many colleagues came up to me and in a way which was like the recognition of an old family member (the camera, not me personally) they would smile, say something nice, and give us a pat of warm recognition. I think many people would love to have the chance to shoot film but the exigencies of work (wire services, news services, etc) mean they just cannot take the time needed to do so. Everyone loves the idea that some crazy old guy is shooting a la 1956.

Film’s not Dead: You ‘owe’ a great deal to your first Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 when your photo of Mary Decker became one of the most iconic sports images in the world. Would you be able to describe to us how that shot came about and do you think you will be able to produce an image like that again with such stature?

David Burnett: I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, at an Olympics where TV hadn’t yet totally taken over the Games. Now, essentially, everything is covered 10 times over by TV: Overhead cameras, moving cameras, cameras in every place, size and description. In 1984 there was still little enough TV coverage that the biggest moment of the games, Decker/Budd, was essentially missed by the TV cameras except for a very distant shot. That wouldn’t happen today. Now there would be 10 different slow motion versions of it. That said, I wonder if we will ever have that kind of iconic image again, as there are so many pictures, so many good pictures, in a smothering world of production (one newspaper, the Sun, had to edit 10000 pictures of the Men’s 100 meters, alone)… it becomes harder in the ocean of photographs, or any one image to rise above the crowd, as good as it may be. I think we may have seen the end of such iconic sports pictures because of the saturation of imagery alone.

Film’s not Dead: Some people believe that analogue photography is like a ‘dying dinosaur’, but with people like you shooting for example in the Olympics with a 4×5 camera it proves that this statement is unjust. So what do you think about the current state of photography?

David Burnett: I feel like a bit of a dinosaur. The great worry that films will be come harder and harder to find, and process is a real one. I just hope there are a few well to do industrialists who love photography, who will keep those lines of film coming for decades. There is a reason that film is having a big resurgence these days… photographers are looking for something beyond the instant satisfaction of the digital image on the back of their cameras… and I hope we can be assured of enough tools going forward, that we won’t have to talk of film as ‘the good old days’ which don’t exist anymore.

Film’s not Dead: What advice and encouragement would you give to inspiring photographers of today?

David Burnett: Develop your own style. Make your pictures YOUR pictures. Shoot in a way that brings people into your work (we each do that our own way… that is something you have to discover on your own…)

Film’s not Dead: Is there anything else you would like to say to the Film’s not Dead readers?

David Burnett: Make every frame count!

Updated:July 29, 2019