ALL ABOUT AMERICA: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BURK UZZLE
Through Sept. 11
The Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill
Editor’s note: The picture below the fold is very beautiful. It is also NSFW.
Great photojournalism can transcend the publication for which it was created. It becomes art and, perhaps more important, a part of the very fabric of time. Moments in history combine in our consciousness with the photographs meant to convey their significance. Can you envision the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, without the photographs of innocent bodies blasted with fire hoses and set upon by police dogs? Can the war in Vietnam ever be separated from the image of a child on fire running down the road, or the famous “Saigon execution” photo?
This is not to say that images of these events are more important than the events themselves. They are not. But without the best photojournalism, we would be less able to feel these important moments that have shaped our world. Such are the stakes when assessing the work of Burk Uzzle. Born in 1938, the famed North Carolina photographer started at the News & Observer before moving on to Life and other national publications, capturing seminal images of Woodstock and the civil rights movement.
Much of what you will see in the Ackland Art Museum’s new Uzzle exhibit, All About America, will trace an eye-worn path into your historical memory bank: A woman grieves over the casket of Martin Luther King Jr. A loving hand rests on the chest of Robert Kennedy, “Just Before His Own Death” at the hands of an assassin. In a perfect composition, nude bathers wade out of a lake at Woodstock. This is photojournalism at its emotional best.
The exhibit starts here, in the shadowed depths of history as the last four generations experienced it. As you keep walking, you pass into postwar American oddity: A small car, divided in half lengthwise but filled by the body of a full-size man, one foot hanging from the gash that used to be the passenger side. Then there’s a field of black-and-white spotted cows that looks naturalbut no, it is also a construction of industry.
In some ways, this is a terrain covered by many other photographers. But these moments still have a poignancy, especially when you get to the beautifully composed frame of the Danbury, Connecticut, county fair. As with the Woodstock bathers, Uzzle waited for gesture and personality to make the mundane wholeto take the everyday and make it a capital-P Photograph.
As the show transitions into more recent decades, one detects the shift that frequently occurs in photographers of a certain age or temperament: An effort to step back and represent a scene as the physical sum of its emotional parts. Perhaps they are tired of using the “sharp elbows,” as Uzzle puts it, required to overcome the obstacles that block the path of good photojournalism. Perhaps it’s just a need for calm after a lifetime covering turmoil. Or maybe it’s simply the result of a graying of the eyesa wiser, more distant vision.
Uzzle says that his best work arises from the American landscape. Hundreds of thousands of such landscapes exist on the Internet, and making one that stands out is as hard as doing so with high-stress news photographybut it is a more secluded endeavor, more private in practice and execution. Uzzle’s work in this area is strong, if not original. We’ve seen the battered playing fields of industrial America before, but they are still beautiful in their nuance and presence.
Late in his career, Uzzle has found a more stationary point for his photographic wanderingshis studio in Wilson, North Carolinawhere he is working on a series of portraits of black women bringing up generations of children singlehandedly. Uzzle’s aim is to create highly composed portraits of these heroes of our time that can offer the same statements on society that his years of responsive news photography did. But time will tell, and we will have to wait, hope, and see.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Lens Flair”