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BURNETT, David

PORTRAIT-BURNETTBorn 1946 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

After graduating in Political Science from Colorado College, David Burnett began his career an intern at Time magazine in 1967 and became a fully-fledged war reporter with his coverage of the Vietnam War for Life in 1970–72. He went on to recognition as one of the great photojournalists of his generation with his work after the coup d’état against Salvador Allende in Chile in September 1973: with Raymond Depardon and Chas Gerretsen he received the Overseas Press Club of America’s Robert Capa Gold Medal. In 1974 he covered the famines in West Africa, a subject he followed up in Ethiopia ten years later. In 1976 he and Robert Pledge set up the Contact Press Images agency in New York.

Burnett was there with his camera for all the major world events: the return of Khomeini to Teheran and the subsequent Iranian revolution in 1979 (Magazine Photographer of the Year); refugees in flight from Cambodia in the same year (World Press Photo Premier Award); and the American invasion of Grenada in 1983. 

A sports lover, he has worked on all the Summer Olympics since Los Angeles, 1984, when his picture of the fall of American runner Mary Decker brought him a host of awards. At the centenary Olympics in 1996 he worked for Time, using a medium format camera for black and white pictures emphasising sportsmanship rather then the event itself. During the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and again in Sydney in 2000, France’s Libération featured a daily photograph by Burnett with his own commentary. Still in France, Le Figaro did the same for the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002.   

Working in both colour and black and white, Burnett pioneered one of the styles that marked out the Contact agency from the start: indepth reporting availing itself of Kodachrome 64, a slower-developing film that offers greater subtlety of grain, colour and tone. The use of this film fits perfectly with the philosophy of an agency that has been known to forgo immediate publication in the interest of more comprehensive coverage.

In thirty years David Burnett has visited seventy countries, photographing all sorts of subjects, and personalities ranging from Pope John Paul II to Kofi Annan, Mikhail Gorbachev to Jose-Maria Aznar and Bill Gates to Fidel Castro. Over that time he has not missed a single American president, beginning in his youth with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Later accredited to the White House, he followed up with the others: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the Bushes father and son.


David Burnett presented his work at the Rencontres d’Arles in 2006: Politique.s 1973-1977 at the Atelier de Mécanique.