The Photographer as Documentalist

By William Dowell, Vevey, Switzerland, October 2008

The Swiss photographer, Balthazar Burkhard, is a man who likes to think big—at least that is the impression created in the exhibition currently underway at the Jenisch Museum in Vevey. Many of the images—an elephant, a pig, the close-up of a human arm—take an entire wall.
Burkhard is considered a “documentalist.” The name implies the antithesis of art, a non-subjective vision of the world around us in which the opinions, emotions and experience of the photographer seemingly play little or no role.
The artist often emphasizes what he wants us to see. In contrast, the documentalist strives simply to show us what is there and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Burkhard’s images strive for that basic simplicity.

There is no emotion in the huge image of an elephant spread across the wall that is the first thing you see when you enter the exhibition, nor is there much in the massive profile of a pig, shown against a cloth backdrop.
In place of the artist’s interpretation, it is the incredible detail of these images which makes us able to grasp and truly understand what we are seeing.
Burkhard’s series of photographs of the pronounced veins in a man’s arm resemble the columns in the ruins of an ancient Greek temple. An aerial photograph of Mexico City makes us feel the vastness as well as the plainness of that sprawling metropolis.
Burkhard’s gift, finally, is to have seen and recognized the beauty of ordinary things—the world that surrounds us to which we have become so accustomed that we no longer allow ourselves the time to notice that it is there.
Burkhard's art ultimately lies in his selection of images to show us, and his gift is to enable us to see the wonder that he sees.

Another artist, whose work is on display in Vevey in a small shop window, but who seems quite intriguing, is Vincent Celotti, who describes himself as an “artist animaliste,” an artist devoted to animals. An exquisite carving of a bird’s head, with blue feathers and a yellow beak, can be found at the shop of L. Celotti, ebeniste and antiquaire.

Celotti's head of a bird