This article, about a photograph taken in São Paulo in 1960, is wonderful. Photographer and writer Teju Cole explains how ‘‘Men on a Rooftop,’’ by the Swiss photographer René Burri (1933–2014), became an obsession:
I’m not sure when my interest in ‘‘Men on a Rooftop’’ became an obsession. Through the years it gained a hold on my imagination until it came to stand as one of the handful of pictures that truly convey the oneiric possibilities of street photography. The celebrated Iranian photojournalist Abbas, who knew Burri well (they were both members of Magnum Photos), described ‘‘Men on a Rooftop’’ to me as ‘‘vintage René: superb form, no political or social dimension.’’ Abbas zeros in on the formal perfection of the image, but I’m not sure I agree that it lacks a social dimension. To me, it literally portrays the levels of social stratification and the enormous gap between those above and those below.
A great photo comes about through a combination of readiness, chance and mystery. Gabriel García-Márquez, once asked whom the best reader of ‘‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’’ was, responded with a story: ‘‘A Russian friend met a lady, a very old lady, who was copying the whole book out by hand, right to the last line. My friend asked her why she was doing it, and the lady replied, ‘Because I want to find out who is really mad, the author or me, and the only way to find out is to rewrite the book.’ I find it hard to imagine a better reader than that lady.’’ Like the lady in García-Márquez’s story, I thought some act of repetition would clarify things. And so I went to São Paulo in March, looking for René Burri.