This is the first edition of my “Inspirational Images” -posts, where I present you some of my all time favorite images.
Men on a rooftop – Copyright Rene Burri/Magnum Photos. Sao Paulo, Brazil. 1960.
What is the best photograph you have ever seen ?
It is not an easy question, but my answer would be this image by Rene Burri. The mysterious metropolitan scene with four men in black suits grabs you immediately. Who are they, what are they up to, how did they get there… ? Burri offers no answers, so we have to rely on our own imagination. Let’s take a closer look at this image.
The men on the rooftop are the main subject, but the busy street down below adds a beautiful juxtaposition. The sunlit parts of the image are clearly separated by the shadowy buildings in the middle, making the image very easy to read. The image is almost like a diptych.
Once you get over the mystery on the right side of the image, you start to look down at the street. And there’s a lot to look at – people walking by, cars, buses, trams… and all these people down below are oblivious of the four agents and their diabolical plot.
The icing on the cake is the smoke rising from below. It makes the image more moody and gritty, à la Film Noir.
Ambiguity is engaging
I think the true power of this image is its’ ambiguity. Even though there is a lot going on, you are not seeing anything very detailed. The people are basically silhouettes, the cityscape is very generic without any distinctive landmarks, and it is quite difficult to tell when the picture was taken. You are not getting specific details, which makes the image all the more engaging. Without too much detail, the viewer’s imagination can complete the story.
While there is no denying that this image is a masterpiece, it is totally within our reach. There is nothing really exotic or rare in the image and no special equipment or processing techniques have been used. The magic lies in Burri’s ability to identify a special moment and to capture that moment into a perfect photograph which continues to engage the viewers over 50 years later.
Rene Burri on Magnum Photos