Photojournalist and Sony Artisan David Burnett has been documenting the world over the last 50 years, with much of his work published in weekly and monthly magazines. He’s also the founder of Contact Press Images, a New York-based photojournalism agency, and has a long list of professional awards and accolades, including the Sprague Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Press Photographers Association. In this short film, filmmakers Amber and Garrette Baird of the Eyenamics team dive deeper into Burnett’s career. Watch as Burnett reflects back on how he got his start in photography, some of the incredible events in history he’s covered, and why he thinks now is a great time to be a photographer.
On Getting His Start In Photography
The short film walks through how Burnett got his start in photography. His mother, who was the editor of The Stanford Daily when she attended back in the 30’s, told him he would never get into college without an extracurricular activity. He decided to join his school’s yearbook committee and immediately fell in love with the magic of the dark room.
“Because you’re in red light,” Burnett explains, “you’re kind of in a magical Disney Land-ish kind of thing. Everything you’re watching is different from everything else you’ve ever seen. And the magic of seeing that picture come up in the tray is something that everybody that I knew that ever had that experience about being in the dark room for the first 8x10 that they remember seeing. That was real magic.”
Burnett considers himself incredibly lucky as he looks back over the past 50 years of his photography career. He’s seen and experienced many things, and talks about the guidance he was lucky to receive, especially throughout his time documenting the Vietnam War. “It was kind of tough at the time,” he says, “but looking back on it I had the good luck and the joy to be guided by a few people like that who just kind of said, ‘Get off your stupid high horse and just get out there and be a photographer.’ And sometimes you just need somebody to tell you to do that, you know? Go be a photographer. There’s nothing that will make you a better photographer that’s more interesting than just being a photographer.”
On Why He Loves Being A Photographer Right Now
Burnett has witnessed many of the technical advancements that have occurred over time in the photography industry, and he says that for him now is a great time to be a photographer. “It’s fun to live at a time with such technical richness. I mean I don't know that we deserve it, maybe we aren’t really that worthy of the riches that we have bestowed upon us. But I know for me, I really love right now being a photographer because there’s so little that you can’t do that might’ve been technically challenging or harder to figure out how to do it 10-20 years ago that you can do now. There’s just no excuse for not making a good frame.”
He continues, “Other than, the world is going to rotate around you and you still have to make those decisions about when you’re going to look and when you're going to be visually turned on to what’s out there. And then that magical moment between pushing the button and all these other little things happening and a capture of light takes place. That’s a joyful moment when you’ve got it, and now you no longer have to wait a week or two to find out if you got it. For us, I think we’re really living in a time of great richness and I think in order to be worthy of the stuff we have available to us, you have to really decide that you’re going to go out and make some great pictures.”
On Capturing The Humanity In His Photographs
The film also shows us Burnett’s friendship with his dog and takes us inside his office, where he shows some of his vintage lenses and discusses his experience covering sports, from the professional games to the senior games. “My real thing is to try and make a great photograph,” he says. “I so seldom have the winner. To me, it’s about trying to find some expression of the beauty of the games, of the strength of the athletes. And if I happen to get a winner, that’s great, but that’s way down my list.”
“In a way there is something in failure that is perhaps more revealing than victory….and you see something. For me, that’s the kind of picture I want to get. I want to touch that humanity. I’m not there so much just to get the winner bursting across the finish line, which can be a great picture, but there are a lot of people doing that that are better at it than I am. I’m looking for the humanity of the athletes. I’m looking for the character and the strength of character. And I’m hoping I don’t let them down in my pictures.”
When all is said and done, Burnett is proud of what he’s accomplished through his career. “This passage of time, and the acceleration of how you live and the passage of time and your own time, sports, politics, Vietnam. I feel like I’ve done something, but I feel like there’s a sense of satisfaction and joy. Yeah, I did something with all this time. I made something happen. I made some pictures that are relevant to what happened in this world that I lived in, in the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the new century. I would hope that with that in mind, that maybe there are a few good pictures that I haven’t made yet.”