Looking back at one of René Burri’s little known projects, Simon Baker highlights the heroism and ruins of space exploration in Burri’s photo-book An American Dream: Photographs from the world of NASA and the Pentagon.
Text by Simon Baker, Director, La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris
René Burri –Ein Amerikanischer Traum: Photographien aus der Welt der NASA und des Pentagon (An American Dream: Photography from the worlds of NASA and the Pentagon)
René Burri was justifiably proud of An American Dream: Photography from the Worlds of NASA and the Pentagon, his 1986 book on the architecture and imagery of the space race and the USA’s associated global hegemony (in which NASA and the Pentagon hung as a pendant pair). Published by Greno Press (which the book’s cover tells us had relocated to Nördlingen), as number 1042 in its DELPHI series, it consists of over 100 colour photographs by Burri; a text collage of assembled quotations about flight, culture, and the ascent of man (from Brecht, Freud, and Kafka to JFK, Oppenheimer, and Poe); and a lengthy 1762 essay by Johann Heinrich Gottlieb von Justi, ‘Considerations on the Government Constitutions of the Peruvian Empires’.
So far so normal for what only appears, in retrospect, to be what is now called a ‘photo-book’. Indeed, given the political framework of the textual component of the publication, it is tempting to imagine that Burri’s elegant and restrained photographic responses to the architectural ruins and nostalgic propaganda of NASA’s facilities constitute an elegiac subtext, the American dream referenced in the title of the book worn down, by 1986, by a brutal Cold War nightmare. There is much of his intelligence and panache in the photographic sequence, which bridges everyday incident, human interest, political symbolism, and architectural formalism – all the elements present throughout Burri’s long and varied career, resolved into one ambitious project. The book begins with a cover image of a tourist gazing at an unbelievable painted montage of all the American spacecraft occupying a single night sky and ends with a shuttle-launch vapour trail captioned with a pithy assemblage of Nietzsche, Sophocles, and Heidegger.
Together with the images in between, with their too-cool muted tones and downbeat abandoned landscapes, the work raises significant questions about the Icarian potential of both the space race and Burri’s photographic series. Risky and open to exploitation and misunderstanding, but occasionally audacious and awe-inspiring, each suffered the vicissitudes of the Cold War to emerge horribly compromised but – arguably – also re-energised. Today, there is rich debate about the ways in which documentary photography, text, and political investigation might coexist in book form. It seems appropriate, therefore, that at this anniversary moment, we look back at Burri’s work, without nostalgia, but with renewed appreciation for the pioneers and colonists of the unexplored spaces between text and image.
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