on David Burnett's works


David Burnett — Man Without Gravity

Robert Pledge


In December 1979, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. The United States in protest boycotts the Olympics in Moscow the following year. The USSR responds in kind by not attending the games in the US, four years later. These postures reflect the tense political climate prevailing in the world at that time. From the outset, Contact Press Images, the independent picture agency David Burnett and I formed in 1976 in New York, chose to focus on the major international developments that would define our era. This is why Burnett came to cover the Los Angeles Olympics from which the Russians were absent and South Africa banned because of its racist apartheid policies, but in which, for the first time ever, China was participating. 

From international tension and disputes and presidential campaigns in the USA and France for which David Burnett became widely known, to the more peace-minded Olympic games constitutes a big step. Neither a war nor a sports photographer, Burnett happens to be a meticulous observer and chronicler of the big and small events that shape our social landscapes, too often with much fracas. Sport is not his field, yet he falls in love with the Summer Olympics in California. Every four years since, he has attended the games ? Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, and recently Rio de Janeiro. He made two forays into the winter editions: in his hometown of Salt Lake City in the US in 2002, and in Russia’s Sochi, in 2014. 

A free spirit, Burnett switches from color to black and white using a range of cameras of many different formats - small, medium and large including a historical Speed Graphic that Weegee and most of the press photographers worked with in the 1940s ? but also, today, from digital to traditional and even Polaroid film depending on mood or inspiration. The images presented on these walls appear the way they were shot: full-frame as the black borders indicate.
The Man Without Gravity exhibition along with its accompanying book, is an attempt to reveal the common thread that brings together the extraordinary abundance of pictures produced over thirty-two years on the occasion of eleven editions of the Games and a few qualifying tournaments in America: the photographer’s athletes are continuously in motion, most frequently in mid-air, positioned in space as if the universal laws of gravity no longer applied. Often with the grandiose settings of manufactured landscapes as a backdrop, David Burnett’s photographs challenge those laws too, defying gravity and generating eternity out of fractions of seconds. The trace of the sublime ephemeral exploits could solely be preserved through photography, and only by one who magically masters its art.

Robert Pledge, President, Contact Press Images, Exhibition curator