“Uzzle Buzz” is a series of blog posts, written by various authors, that respond to or comment on some aspect of our exhibition All About America: Photographs by Burk Uzzle.
Nic Brown is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University. He is the author of the novels In Every Way, Doubles, and Floodmarkers, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Garden & Gun, and the Harvard Review, among many other publications.
I interviewed Burk Uzzle a few months back for a profile in Garden & Gun. I had quite a bit left over from that interview that I couldn’t use because of space and editorial needs. Much of it stayed with me. In fact, some of it concerns Uzzle’s belief in art flourishing outside of editorial guidelines. In that spirit, I’m happy to now have the space here with the Ackland to continue writing and thinking about him. –NB
When Burk Uzzle was twenty-one, he was married, had two sons, and was living in Atlanta with his family trying to make ends meet by taking photographs. The family was so poor that in place of a dining table they ate off a board that they had closed in a window, making it stick out straight.
A year later Life hired him as a staff photographer and had him move to Chicago. Uzzle was so accustomed to poverty that he directly checked into the Chicago YMCA. When his editor heard, he immediately moved Uzzle into a hotel with an expense account. One of Uzzle’s first assignments was to fly to South Dakota to shoot a blizzard, but he didn’t own a warm enough jacket, so upon arrival he bought a huge shearling one, only to then have to fly to some tropical locale for his next assignment, still wearing his shearling jacket.
After only a few years with Life, Uzzle quit to hitchhike across the country in hopes of taking photos that captured the experience. Life hired him again when he returned, on the strength of his work. Soon he quit again.
“I never really liked taking orders from editors,” he says. “I would decline assignments so I could do what I thought I should do.”
At Woodstock, which Uzzle initially visited out of curiously but ended up getting stuck at because of the New York State Thruway getting closed, he found many of his photographer friends in the press pit in front of the stage. “You’re wasting your time down here,” Uzzle told them. He had quickly come to realize that the real pictures of interest weren’t of Joan Baez or Canned Heat on stage, but of the skinny-dippers in the ponds, of the young people trying to stay warm in the fields. While his friends followed the orders of their editors and stayed put in the press pit, Uzzle borrowed film from them, walked up the hill, and captured on it images that have become so iconic that when we now think about this turning point in the country’s history, we see in our mind a Burk Uzzle photo.
Burk Uzzle, American, born 1938: Wheels With Legs, 1983; gelatin silver print. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Anonymous Gift, 2008.3.6
The point is, Uzzle has lived his life with an almost daredevil belief in art, eschewing financial stability and comfort for a single-minded trust in the work itself. “I’ve always lived for the picture,” he says. It seems terrifying.
And yet he’s still doing it.
Not long ago, Uzzle spent a year shooting 8×10 film while putting 350,000 miles on his old Chevy van, driving around, just looking for the picture. “I zig-zagged across the country, developing film in Motel 6 bathrooms,” he says. He was doing this not on payroll, not on assignment, but just looking for pictures. This from a guy who used to be president of Magnum Photos, who has lived long enough and richly enough that he can recall personal lessons received from his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson. I don’t know about you, but seems to me most people in Uzzle’s position would probably be sitting in an endowed chair at some university somewhere taking pictures of the view out their window. As Uzzle puts it, though, “most of my life has been spent driving around the country in a van.”
Artwork hung in a museum is, in a way, like reading the history of war. We see the outcome as inevitable. Here is the art hanging right here, it was meant to be here; here is the winner of this war, they were always going to win. But of course, as people will tell you who lived through wars, the outcome is never foretold. So it is with art. In Uzzle’s life, as he was shooting many of the photos in this exhibition, what he probably saw in his future was less a vision of his name on a museum wall, and more a vision of his dinner resting atop a board closed into a window.
What I’m getting at is something we hear about often – the struggle of the artist. Uncertainty and risk. Burk Uzzle has spent a life taking the biggest risks, putting all of his chips on the table. So take a look. He’s spent years now cashing them in. The payoff has been developed, matted, and framed. It’s like we all know the best poker player in town, and not only is he still playing, he always shares his winnings.
–Nic Brown, August 10, 2016