World Renowned Photographer visits SIUC Photographer_09/05-jy

By Gus Bode

David Burnett shows his work during presentation Thursday

Factoid:Students can have their work critiqued by Burnett 8:30-10:45 a.m. His show will be in display in the Gallery of the Communications Building until Sept. 26

The memories that comprise David Burnett’s career may consist of images from the trial of Clarence Thomas, celebrities, moments of the Vietnam War and every president since John F. Kennedy, but they began with the not-yet-developed print of his high school French club.


“When I was in high school, I figured I needed some kind of extracurricular activity, something that would look good on my resume,” said Burnett, a renowned photojournalist who presented his work and advice at SIUC Thursday. “I joined the yearbook staff and I looked through the list for possible jobs. I skipped over business, I skipped over art, and kind of landed on photography by default.”

Burnett took up photography and received his first assignment his junior year of high school:photographing the school’s French club.

“Even seeing something as mundane as that, the first time you see it appear in print in the developer in the tray, its pretty magical.”

Since that shot of the French Club at age 16, the portfolio of world-renowned photojournalist David Burnett has evolved into much more than a shot of a school organization. His images have developed into a unique style that was presented in a display in the gallery area of the Communications Building.

By 1 p.m. Thursday, the display featuring the photos of Burnett was considered a work-in-progress. The cutlines for some photos not yet placed on the white walls, workers in the cinema and photography office shared with interested students that the gallery display was not yet complete and should be ready around four.

In spite of the absent cut lines, students who ventured into the gallery did not view the display as an incomplete work. From a photograph of a man diving to a girl enjoying a drink from a rusted brown faucet in Ethiopia, Burnett’s work spoke for itself.

A cut line of a photo of an Olympic diver captures the gold medalist with only the air underneath her. The frozen state is one many passers-by were caught in.


The display caused a lot of freezing during its short life in the case in front of the gallery, with students stopping on their way to class to view the work of a man whose career has spanned four decades.

“Burnett has a sharp eye for emotional expression and connecting through photographs,” said Gary Kolb, a professor in cinema and photography. “He’s captured some attention moments and does a remarkable job of capturing moments in time.”

During his 40 -year career, Burnett has been best known for his images of the Iranian war and shots from Ethiopia, as well as images of athletes, celebrities, politicians and sports.

“[Burnett] is a generalist rather than a specialist,” Kolb said. “Most photographers don’t have that kind of breadth.”

Phillip Greer, a photojournalist in residence at SIUC and a photographer at the Chicago Tribune for 24 years, said he admires Burnett’s work ethic and ability to gain access to places that others could not, acquiring images that would otherwise remain unseen.

“It’s one second in time you will never see again,” Greer said. “Journalists are the ears, and photojournalists are the eyes.”

Burnett used his position as a source of vision to produce images from locations in Ethiopia, Iran and the funeral of Juan Peron.

Burnett’s images have produced not only sources of reference and memories but respect for a certain unique style he possesses.

“[Burnett] is a photojournalist telling a story with photos, and through these photos he crafts a story that is really about the subject,” said James Kelly, an associate professor in journalism. “The story being told is about the subject, not David Burnett.”

You may not know David Burnett, but you know his pictures.”

An introduction of the photographer recognized his time freelancing for publications such as the New York Times and Time and Life magazines, among several awards. More so than the awards he has won or accomplishments he has made, however, Burnett views his life “as all these pictures wrapped together.”

The photos “wrapped together” in Burnett’s presentation contained several shots of himself, including forms of identification such as press cards that span the time over which he had worked at capturing the images that made up his life.

Some of his work was athletic, such as that of a voiceless cry of a runner who watched her aspirations of Olympic gold sprint past after a collision with another runner, an emotion that expressed just as well today the agony of defeat as it did 10 years ago. The same agony is illustrated through the bloody hands of a man who dipped his hands in the blood of a murdered friend.

All of the images are not as emotional. One image simply shows an empty parking lot, the view from Burnett’s hotel room during one of his shoots.

While Burnett admits that, as his years of experience increase, and the extreme emotion, at times, dissipates, the passion is still there.

“In the end, when the frame is developed, there is still an adrenaline rush like you cannot imagine,” Burnett said.

He encourages aspiring photographers to keep the images they take, regardless of their impression of them at the time.

“Years later, you look back through these photos and wish you knew who these people were,” Burnett said. “Things you may have skipped over have a whole different meaning, a whole different context when you look back over them years later.”

By far, when I look at these [photos], the most interesting are the mundane, everyday moments.”

Reporter Jessica Yorama can be reached at [email protected]