David Burnett was born on September 7, 1946, in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. He began taking pictures on the yearbook at Olympus High School. While in high school, he began freelancing – covering sports events and selling pictures to the S L Tribune. He launched his magazine career in 1967 as an intern at Time Magazine while earning a degree in political science at Colorado College. He went to Vietnam as a freelance photographer in 1970. Time magazine regularly published his pictures. He joined the weekly Life becoming one of the last photographers hired before the magazine ceased publication in 1972. He then joined the French agency Gamma for two years, before co-founding Contact Press Images in New York in 1976.
His coverage of the aftermath of the 1973 Chilean Coup d’Etat earned him his first major award, the Overseas Press Club of America’s prestigious "Robert Capa Gold Medal" for "outstanding photography demonstrating exceptional courage and enterprise from abroad". Many prestigious awards would follow, including the 1979 World Press Photo "Premier - Press Photo of the Year - Award" for his documentation of Cambodian refugees and the 1986 American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP) "Philippe Halsman Award" for his contribution to photojournalism over the last decade. His immortal picture of Mary Decker’s anguished fall at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games has likewise earned numerous awards and graced many magazines.
In his career that has spanned nearly 45 years, David Burnett has visited more than eighty countries. He has covered stories as diverse as the French and American Presidential elections from 1972 to the present; the famine in Sahel in 1974 and in Ethiopia in 1984; the Iranian revolution following Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran in 1979, and the Summer Olympics from 1984 to 2004, and the Salt Lake Winter Games of 2002.
During his career Burnett has photographed every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both George Bushes. In March 1990, Time magazine chose him to photograph Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for their exclusive cover-story interview. He likewise accompanied Time senior editors to Cuba to produce a cover portrait of Fidel Castro for their Cuba feature.
His black and white photo essay for Time on the occasion of the centennial of the Olympic Games in 1996 earned him the First prize in the International Olympic Committee’s quadrennial contest in Lausanne, Switzerland. These images were published in magazines all over the world and later expanded into the exhibit and catalogue, E-Motion: Grace and Poetry: The Spirit of Sport. That same year he completed an eight-month project called "A Mile Around The White House" which he produced along with two other Contact photographers for Life. His 54 image exhibit "Measures In Time", a compilation of images from 1963 through 2002 is currently touring the US.
The past few years saw Burnett working with an antique Speed Graphic press camera, capturing events of the American Presidential Election, and the Athens, Beijing, and London Olympic Games of 2004/2008/2012. In 2005 he was awarded 1st Prize (Sports Action) from the White House News Photog. Assn (WHNPA), and 1st prize Sports Story from World Press Photo for his Athens Olympics photographs. In 2006 his photographs of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were published as a 24 page piece in the August ('06) National Geographic.
He has served on the jury of the prestigious World Press Photo competition (Holland) 1997, 1999, 2011, having been the chairman of the jury in 1999 and 2011. In 2007 he was a Master teacher at the Joop Swart Master Class for young photographers (Amsterdam.)