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Rudy Burckhardt

  • Rudy Burckhardt was a Swiss-born photographer, filmmaker and painter who emigrated from Basle to New York City in 1935. He was well networked within the emerging Abstract Expressionist art scene of 1940s' and 50s'.
  • Rudy
  • Burckhardt
  • Rudolph Burckhardt, Rudolf Burckhardt, Rudi Burckhardt

  • 06-04-1914
  • Basel (CH)
  • 01-08-1999
  • Searsmont (US)
  • PhotographerFilmmakerPainter
  • Rudy Burckhardt was a Swiss-born photographer, filmmaker and painter who emigrated from Basle to New York City in 1935. He was well networked within the emerging Abstract Expressionist art scene of 1940s' and 50s'.

    Word Count: 33

  • Rudy Burckhardt, Selftportrait, New York 1937 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021).
  • Rudy Burckhardt was born into a Swiss patrician family in Basle. Before emigrating to New York in 1935 at the age of 21, he was briefly a medical student in London before giving up his studies and taking up photography. After London and a stay in Paris, he went back to Basle, where he worked in a portrait studio. In 1934, through his work, he met the American dancer and poet Edwin Denby, who commissioned portraits by him at the studio and encouraged him to emigrate to New York. In 1935 Burckhardt did so and the two lived together in an apartment in Chelsea at 145 West 21st Street.

    Overwhelmed by the city, during his first two years there, Burckhardt explored it with his movie camera rather than his stills camera. In 1936, with the participation of his friends Paula Miller Edwin Denby, Aaron Copland, John Latouche, Paul Bowles and Virgil Thomson, he made his first short film 145 West 21, named after his residential address in Chelsea. The film was shot in his apartment and on the streets and roofs of Chelsea. In subsequent years he produced several other short films, for example Seeing the World, Part One: On a Visit to New York, N.Y (1937); The Pursuit of Happiness (1940, 7 min.), The Climate of New York (1948, 21 min.), Under the Brooklyn Bridge (1953, 15 min.). In the winter of 1937 he travelled to Haiti, where he filmed and took photographs, then returned to New York in mid-1938 and photographed the streets there.

    Before his departure to Haiti, in 1937, Rudy Burckhardt made his first self-portrait (see signature image). Dressed smartly in a suit and tie, the shy-looking young Rudy Burckhardt stood in front of a white wall for his performance. It is not clear exactly where the picture was taken. Rudy Burckhardt placed himself in front of a white mobile wall reminiscent of a background for portrait photographs. He is turned sideways and his gaze is not directed towards the camera, but rather into the distance. The picture is entitled Self-Portrait. However, it is not exactly clear whether it is really a self-portrait or whether another person took the portrait of Burckhardt as no mobile self-timer can be seen in Rudy Burckhardt’s hand. Rudy Burckhardt had a 9x12 cm middle format camera with a tripod (Katz 1988, 12). Perhaps technical developments already allowed a self-timer with time delay to be installed directly on the camera. He placed his camera in a certain position in the room, that his full body could be portrayed. As the gaze is directed towards the side it gives the impression of a shy and first try with the camera. It was in the same year, that Rudy Burckhardt begun again photographing also outside in the streets. Comparing to the outside photographs or also other self-portraits of other émigrés colleagues as Fred Stein, Andreas Feininger, Lisette Model or Lux Feininger, who experimented with their cameras in front of shop windows or mirrors, Rudy Burckhardt chose like a very traditional and conventional way to portray himself in the new city, where he did not include his camera on the image. It’s only showing him as person with no hint that he worked as photographer. Furthermore, he took his portrait inside in a more formal setting like a studio and not in the urban space of New York. So, also the geographical hint cannot be interpreted without knowing the title of the image.

    In 1939 he created his album New York N. Why?, a collection of his photographs accompanied by poems by Edwin Denby. It is not certain whether the album – or, as Burckhardt called it, scrapbook – was intended for publication and thus for a wider audience or if it was intended to be private, but in 2001 the album was published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and forms part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

    New York N. Why? is much more than a scrapbook. The album consists of a thematically structured series of photographs of street scenes, lyrically supported by poems by Edwin Denby. The poems read as though they were written by Denby while he was looking at the photographs and articulating his direct impressions. Focusing on the kerbsides and pavements, the architectural eclecticism of the buildings, the people passing by and the newsstands, Rudy Burckhardt experimented with his camera, capturing everyday scenes on the streets. He focussed on the different architectural styles that could be discovered in the city. The exaggeration of this urban eclecticism and at the same time experimenting in unusual perspectives and radical close-ups can be seen in one image by Rudy Burckhardt. In the image Building Front Detail with Acanthus Molding in Doorway he placed a 9x12 cm view camera on a tripod and made plain, direct photos of the walls, building entrances, ornaments, drain pipes, advertisement signs and shop windows (Katz 1998, 194). By focusing on a detail of a house entrance, this everyday motif becomes strange and shows an unexpected view Focussing on a close-up detail Burckhardt highlighted the juxtaposition of different styles that he discovered in only one architectural fragment of a house façade. Burckhardt got the parallel existence of different architectural styles into one image while abstracting the house facade as an entity of different structures and surfaces. In contrast to the idealistic and modern visions of buildings in New York that were practiced by American and European photographers in the 1920s and early 1930s, in response to new urban developments, Burckhardt photographed the everyday life on the streets. He did not use an external perspective, but focused his gaze directly on the everyday urban infrastructures as well as inhabitants on the streets. Other American photographers such as Walker Evans and Helen Levit, as well as the German emigrant Lisette Model, followed this approach in their photographs during the late 1930s.

    Viewing the images as a whole, the photographs are like little filmic sequences and patterns of urban life in New York. Therefore, he certainly was inspired by his previous film projects on the streets of New York. Interestingly, from 1940, another émigré photographer, Lisette Model, started taking photographs that focused on the rush hour and the hurried pace of the metropolis in her Running Legs series. Also the émigré photographer Ellen Auerbach pursued the same interest in the eclectic nature of New York’s architecture, though from an elevated perspective. Burckhardt's photographs were glued together with the poems in a straightforward and minimalistic way, in a spiral-bound book. The spiral binding gives the impression of a simple notebook or calendar and had been used for their photobook projects in the European and American photo scene by émigrés like Fred Stein, Mario Bucovich and André Kertész, since the 1930s. During the 1940s Burckhardt produced two other albums in which he recorded the streets away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan: An Afternoon in Astoria (1940) and A Walk through Astoria and Other Places in Queens (1943).

    Burckhardt not only photographed the streets of New York, but was also embedded as a photographer, friend and later also painter in the art scene of New York. Living in the apartment next to the émigré painter William de Kooning and his wife Elaine, a close friendship developed between them in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Rudy Burckhardt photographed the painter at home and through him also met other painters such as Alex Katz, Josef Albers, Jackson Pollock, Fairfield Porter and many more, whom he photographed in their apartment-studios in the process of creating their artworks. Rudy Burckhardt’s images can be seen today as examples of the unique European-American relationship between the arts and the start of Abstract Expressionism in New York. One early portrait of Willem de Kooning was taken in 1937 or 1938 by Rudy Burckhardt photographing the émigré painter in his studio on 22nd West in front of one of his paintings. During this period De Kooning was painting human portraits and he placed himself in front of a portrait of a man. It’s not clear whether the painted man is perhaps a self-study of the painter himself or a study of another person. Comparing the portrait of Kooning with Burckhardt’s self-portrait of 1937 one can remark, that it was taken in almost the same position. The portrait of Kooning is also showing him in a full body view and must have taken with some distance. It can be guessed that also here the middle format camera stood on a tripod. Contrary to Burckhardt’s self-portrait De Kooning is looking directly in the camera. With his hands in his pockets he represents himself in a self-confident position. Furthermore, De Kooning is directly placing in the context of his profession as painter. With photographing De Kooning together with a portrait study by him, the image is showing also the self-representation and formal and stylistic training of the painter. The painting is representing De Kooning’s more realistic period before he was entering the Abstract Expressionist circle (Lopate 1998).

    The émigré photographer Ellen Auerbach, who, from the 1940s, lived just a few blocks away from Burckhardt, Denby and de Kooning, was also part of this cultural hub, as can be seen in images created during the group's meetings. In 1945 the German émigré painter Edith Schloss, who had arrived in New York in 1942 and studied at the Cooper Art School and the New School for Social Research, also lived in Ellen Auerbach’s apartment. Through her contact with Willem de Kooning she met Auerbach and soon afterwards also Rudy Burckhardt and became part of the close network on the 21st Street. Images by Ellen Auerbach taken in her loft and at the artist’s studio portray opened-minded gendered spaces between these artists during the 1940s and 1950s. Although Burckhardt married Edith Schloss in 1947 (1919–2011) and moved with her to a loft across the street at 116 West 21th Street, Edwin Denby still regularly joined the family and maintained his close relationship with Rudy Burckhardt, spending his summers at Burckhardt’s house in Searsmont, where he committed suicide in 1983. It is not clear if the relationship between Edwin Denby and Rudy Burkhardt was more than a friendship, but it can guessed that they had a sexual relationship (Venturini 2021). The queer and gendered photographic and artistic scene during the 1940s and 1950s has been very little studied and less information on the contact hubs, networks and the place in society of émigrés is known. The émigré photographer Rolf Tietgens and Ruth Bernhard were also part of the queer artistic scene during the 1940s and 1950s in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. It is not known if either of them knew Rudy Burckhardt.

    Burckhardt was not the only émigré photographer to record the artistic scene in New York during the 1940s and 1950s. Marion Palfi, Lilly Joss and Hermann Landshoff also created work which articulates the close network that existed among the arts and also supported other exiled communities. Besides his work in photography and film, Rudy Burckhardt also started painting and, under the name Rudolph Burckhardt, was employed as a photographer and art critic for Art News magazine. In 1948 some of his photographs were presented, together with images by Morris Huberland, at an exhibition at the Photo League Gallery. Therefore, Rudy Burckhardt was also a member of the Photo League photographic group, which pursued a critical social and documentary character. Before its relocation to 23 East 10th Street, the Photo League Gallery was at 31 East 21st Street, the same street where Rudy Burckhardt lived, so it is possible that this was how he made the group's acquaintance. In 1949 an article by Jaqueline Judge was published in Popular Photography with the title “Rudi Burckhardt … photographer of everyday life” (Judge 1949). 1983 exhibition of Burckhardt's photographs at the Marlborough Gallery at 40 West 57th Street (The New York Times, 17 June 1983, p. C12)

    Between 2000 and 2015 five exhibitions dedicated to the life and photographic work of Rudy Burckhardt were:
    Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and '60s at New York University (May 9 – July 15, 2000), New York, N. Why? Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt, 1937–1940 at Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 23, 2008 – January 4, 2009),
    Rudy Burckhardt. New York / Main at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg (March 3, 2013– July 7, 2013) and
    Rudy Burckhardt – In the Jungle of the Big City at Fotostiftung Schweiz (October 25, 2014 - February 15, 2015).

    Word Count: 2043

  • Announcement for an exhibition by Rudy Burkhardt at the Photo League Gallery in Brooklyn Eagle, 30 September 1948, p. 18.
    Jaqueline Judge. “Rudi Burckhardt … photographer of everyday life.” Popular Photography, January 1949, pp. 52–53 (Photo: Helene Roth).
    Rudy Burckhardt, Portrait of the painter Willem de Kooning, New York 1937/38 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021).
    Rudy Burckhardt, Building Front Detail with Acanthus Molding in Doorway, New York City, 1938 (© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021).
  • Burckhardt, Rudy, and Sarah Hermanson Meister. An Afternoon in Astoria and Other Places in Queens (Reproduction of unpublished album of 1943), exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002. Accessed 7 April 2021.

    Burckhardt, Rudy, and Simon Pettet. Talking Pictures. Zoland Books, 1994.

    Burckhardt, Rudy. New York, N. Why? Photographs by Rudolf Burckhardt, Poems by Edwin Denby (Reproduction of unpublished album of 1938). Nazraeli Press, 2008.

    Casanova, Maria. Rudy Burckhardt. Generalitat Valencia, 1998.

    Displaced Visions. Émigré Photographers of the 20th Century, edited by Nissan N. Perez, exh. cat. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2013.

    Judge, Jaqueline. "Rudi Burckhardt ...photographer of everyday life." Popular Photography, January 1949, pp. 52–54; 150–151.

    Lopate, Philipp. Rudy Burckhardt. Ein Schweizer blickt auf Amerika. AS-Verlag, 2004.

    Rudy Burckhardt, edited by Vincent Katz, exh. cat. IVAM Centre Julio González, Valencia 1998.

    Rudy Burckhardt – New York Moments: Fotografie und Filme, edited by Haldemann Anita and Hannes Schüpbach, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Basel, Zürich 2005.

    Smith, Roberta. “Rudy Burckhardt, 85, Photographer and Filmmaker, Dies.” The New York Times, 4 August 1999, p. 17. Accessed 7 April 2021.

    Venturini, Mary and Edith Schloss. The Loft Generation: Form the De Koonings to Towombly: Portraits and Sketches, 1942–2011. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

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  • My deepest thanks go to Jacob Burckhardt for providing me with information on his father, Rudy Burckhardt and the VG Bild Kunst for granting me the images rights.

    Word Count: 28

  • Helene Roth
  • New York, US (1935–1999).

  • 145 West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York City (residence and workplace, 1935–1947); 116 West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York City (residence and workplace, 1947–1999).

  • New York
  • Helene Roth. "Rudy Burckhardt." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 16-11-2021.
  • Andreas Feininger
    New York

    Andreas Feininger, was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York with his wife Wysse Feininger in 1939. He started a lifelong career exploring the city's streets, working as a photojournalist and writing a large number of photography manuals.

    Word Count: 39

    Ruth Bernhard
    New York

    Ruth Bernhard was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1920s to the 1940s. Beside her series on female nudes, her place in the photography network, as well as in the New York queer scene, is unknown and understudied.

    Word Count: 43

    Lisette Model
    New York

    Lisette Model was an Austrian-born photographer who lived in New York with her husband Evsa Model after emigrating from France. Her street photographs capturing the curiosities of everyday life quickly caught the interest of museums and magazines.

    Word Count: 37

    Fred Stein
    New York

    Always accompanied by his camera, the German émigré photographer Fred Stein discovered New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. His pictures provide an human and multifaceted view of the metropolis.

    Word Count: 31

    Charles Leirens
    New York

    Charles Leirens was a Belgian-born musician and photographer who emigrated to New York in 1941. While publishing two books on Belgian music, he also gave courses in musicology and photography at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 36

    Rolf Tietgens
    New York

    Rolf Tietgens was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York in 1938. Although, in the course of his photographic career, his artistic and surrealist images were published and shown at exhibitions, his work, today, is very little known.

    Word Count: 39

    Ellen Auerbach
    New York

    When she arrived in New York in 1937, the German-born photographer Ellen Auerbach (formerly Rosenberg) had already passed through exile stations in Palestine and Great Britain.

    Word Count: 25

    Ruth Jacobi
    New York

    Ruth Jacobi was a German-speaking, Polish-born photographer who emigrated in 1935 to New York, where she opened a studio together with her sister Lotte Jacobi. She later had her own portrait studio.

    Word Count: 31

    Lilly Joss
    New York

    Lilly Joss was an émigré freelance photographer in New York. She worked for the Black Star photo agency and magazines and was also a portrait and theatre photographer.

    Word Count: 28

    Fritz Henle
    New York

    Fritz Henle was a German Jewish photographer who emigrated in 1936 to New York, where he worked as a photojournalist for various magazines. He also published several photobooks of his travels throughout North America and Asia.

    Word Count: 35

    T. Lux Feininger
    New York

    Lux T. Feininger was a German-American émigré photographer and painter and the brother of the photographer Andreas Feininger, arriving in 1936 in New York. Although he started taking photographs during the 1920s in Germany, Feininger is better known for his career as a painter and his photographic work is largely unacknowledged.

    Word Count: 50

    Service Photo Suppliers Inc.
    Photo Supplier
    New York

    Service Photo Suppliers was a photo supplier distributing a wide variety of photo equipment and opened by the German émigré Hans Salomon (1909–?) in 1945.

    Word Count: 23

    Photo Supplier
    New York

    Spiratone was a photo company and photo supplier founded in 1941 by the Austrian émigré family Hans (1888–1944) and Paula Spira (?–?) and their son Fred Spira (1924–2007).

    Word Count: 24

    Hermann Landshoff
    New York

    Besides outdoor fashion shots, Hermann Landshoff was a portrait and street photographer. During his time in New York, he captured the cultural, artistic and intellectual émigré scene as well as his photographer colleagues.

    Word Count: 33

    Marion Palfi
    New York

    Marion Palfi was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s. Her photographic engagement in social and political topics made her name for her use of the camera to draw attention to social injustices.

    Word Count: 41

    Mario Bucovich
    New York

    Only a few details are known of the life and career of émigré photographer and publisher Mario Bucovich, who, after emigrating to New York, published the photobooks Washington D.C. and Magic Manhattan.

    Word Count: 33

    New School for Social Research
    Academy/Art SchoolPhoto SchoolUniversity / Higher Education Institute / Research Institute
    New York

    During the 1940s and 1950s emigrated graphic designers and photographers, along with artists and intellectuals, were given the opportunity to held lectures and workshops at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 31