I am in Switzerland for a few days visiting my brother who happens to live in Winterthur, home of the Swiss foundation of photography and Fotomuseum Winterthur. These world famous institutions, tucked away in unassuming old factory buildings outside the city centre are always worth a visit. I’ve arrived just in time to catch the Balthasar Burkhard retrospective exhibition, which spans both spaces and closes on the 21st of May. I must admit this was my first encounter with the Swiss photographer and it was full of welcome surprises.
Burkhard’s early career, displayed in the foundation building, was largely shaped by his friendship with the influential and charasmatic curator Harald Szeemann who brought him into contact with the avant garde artists of the day. He spent much of the 1960s and 70s immersed in the Swiss and international art scene where he documented the performances and exhibition openings of artists such as Paul Thek, Vito Acconci and Joseph Beuys. His fly on the wall snapshots make this legendary and vibrant period of art making feel both familiar and playful, and they reflect how close Burkhard was to the people he photographed.
While Burkhard’s documentary photographs are printed in the small scale you expect from 35mm film, his own creations are enlarged at an increasingly grand scale. This mode of display distanced him from the documentary photography he had been engrossed in and distinguished these pictures as artworks. The monumental photograph, which eventually defined his practice, began with the Amsterdam Canvases, 1969-70, a series of almost life size images printed onto canvas and made in collaboration with artist Markus Raetz.
The giant tableaus shot almost exclusively in black and white that Burkhard became known for fill the Fotomuseum across the road. There is a shared sense of an almost scientific pursuit in each of the series presented here. Whether the focus is on body parts, portraits of animals or landscapes, Burkhard explored the technical and aesthetic potential of the photographic medium.