“Houses on the beach at Dauphin Island, AL, where the Katrina storm blew dozens of houses of the elevated pilings which held them, ruined most of the rest which remained. Here, what was once a house on the beach, is now just the piling supports, and because of the storm, the beach itself is now 30 meters further out than before the storm.” D.B.
David Burnett is a well-known and well-respected photojournalist whose work has covered more than four decades. The variety and scope of his work is impressive. His unique style and eye make his photographs memorable. He is a photographer with a carefully chosen bag of cameras who transforms his photographs into memorable visions.
Please take a moment to view and pause with his work to see what a photographer can create. Rfotofolio is pleased to introduce the first our interviews with David Burnett.
Please tell us about yourself and how you started your career in photography?
I began shooting in high school (age 16) in Salt Lake City, working for the annual “Yearbook” – photographing sports, the various clubs, and making candid pictures around school. I was mesmerized as were many of my friends by the magic of seeing a white piece of photo paper turn into a photograph in the Dektol, and the excitement of seeing that happen has never diminished, even though I don’t do lab work anymore, and use digital cameras for a good deal of my work. I began selling pictures by the time I was 17, working for local newspapers, and it was seeing my pictures in print which made me want to be a magazine photographer.
What photographers have inspired you?
There is a long list of great photographers, and it includes, from the early days: Robert Capa, David Douglas Duncan (his book, Yankee Nomad really made me understand the world was ours to explore), Cartier-Bresson who could take the simplest non-event and make a stunning image of it, Eisenstadt who proved that you can always make a good picture. Later, I met Larry Burrows in Vietnam shortly before he was killed, but I loved the self-assurance and understanding of his subjects which he showed. Erich Salomon, the master of the Ermanox who took pictures in ways no one had before. He really helped to invent photojournalism. I wonder, in fact, if today’s young photographers take the time and trouble to see beyond the current generation, and understand more of who the great photojournalists were of the last 75 years. I worry that the self-congratulatory aspect of digital (wow! Look! I just took a picture, and now I’m looking at it!!) clouds the view of young photographers, who I believe could learn a great deal by spending some time seeing what the great masters of the craft did with simple cameras, and a personal vision.
What do you look for as you are composing your images. You use a variety of cameras in different formats, can you share why you chose to photograph this way?
It is very intuitive. I don’t really ‘calculate’ it so much as just ‘feeling’ it…what seems like it might be right. You try to make a choice, you look thru the finder, and some times it works, and mostly it doesn’t and you have to go back to square one and rethink it. Much of what we do is very intuitive, you have to feel it in your gut. It is something you can’t really teach, although I think you can be taught to be smart and tough on yourself. In the end, that is what makes photographers good photographers: an ability to keep seeing in places where most people see very little.
How did the series “Aftermath” come up and how does one prepare for that kind of project?
I was assigned three months after the hurricane by National Geographic to photograph the results of the destruction for a big story on the changing world of hurricanes/storms. I took my digi cameras and my 4×5 Speed Graphic. Shooting film was something few people in the magazine world do these days, but I wanted to have the chance, the opportunity to use the big camera if it seemed like the moment was right. And I was happy that every picture in the final story was a 4×5. It seemed at the time to carry a bit more weight than the 35mm pictures, and for me it was the kind of pictures which take a little longer to shoot (the camera is awfully slow) but you end up making sure that the picture you want is the picture you get. Preparation: I was happy to have had the researchers from Nat Geo find locations and people to give me a good start, and once I was there, I was able to expand on that information — there is nothing like being on the spot — and find picture situations which seemed to work with the story.
Did you photograph any of the aftermath of Sandy?
I ended up doing a lot of politics last year, and did not do much on Sandy, which I regret that I didn’t make more time for doing so. But you can’t photograph everything. You have to make choices.
“Hadi returned to his ruined house, torn apart when Katrina’s storm surge breached the 17th Street Canal levee last August, and found his seven year old son’s dress clothes. “I hung them there to show how quickly life can change.” D.B.
“Herbert Gettridge and his wife raised nine children in this house, which he built with his own hands in 1953. A year ago Katrina filled the house to the ceiling, ruining Gettridge’s extensive wardrobe – scores of suits, dozens of hats, closets of accessories. But the house, built solid, suffered no structural damage, just a broken window-pane, and Gettridge, now 82, is steadily rehabilitating it.” D.B.
“A lone Ford Mustang, near the 17th st canal, covered in sand after the levees broke”. D.B.
Thank you David Burnett, we hope to share more in the future.
To learn more about the work of David Burnett please visit his site at, David Burnett.