“It is helpful to once in a while stir the stew.”
Navigating the road between maintaining personal freedom and earning a crust can be a rocky one. Sit in one place too long and stagnate or cut loose until the cash runs out. Armed with a restless spirit perhaps the decision becomes easier, but maybe not the road.
Burk Uzzle has carved out a career with the ideas of integrity and personal freedom always close at hand. He joined LIFE magazine at the tender age of 23, and later became member and twice president of institutional heavyweight Magnum. Needless to say Burk Uzzle has two feet firmly planted in the tradition of classic story telling. With an eye keenly fixed on a distinctly American sensibility, Uzzle dances between humour and wit, shrewdly capturing a portrait of his countrymen.
From Woodstock to Martin Luther King’s funeral, Uzzle has been witness to some of the defining moments in recent history – his photographs are lucid documents of that cultural giant we call America. With such an iconic catalogue, it was our pleasure to have a chinwag with the man about how heart, mind and energy creates great work.
The following conversation took place via email from August 2nd – September 14th 2014
HC – It seems from very early on you knew you wanted to be a photographer, Growing up in small-town North Carolina, was there a desire to see father afield? Is it curiosity that made you want to take photographs?
BU – I certainly had a natural curiosity for that big world out there that I kept seeing in Life Magazine. A small town that I really did not like at all accentuated that. Still, I have always liked to keep moving and have a tradition of getting restless.
Now, however, after settling into another small town in North Carolina after decades of living all over the place, an interesting new development has changed how I think about subject matter.
I’ve found that working with the same people over and over, and staying within a particular community and knowing these people really well has brought out a much greater sensitivity.
It’s going deeper in the well, as opposed to hopping from place to place and being relegated to surfing the surface. Even with dramatic and exotic subjects and places, and perhaps especially if one is hooked on the exotic and sensational, working too quickly can often presuppose superficiality.
Also helpful is working with large format film with the demands of discipline and craft. I tend to perceive and compose and “feel” the pictures much better with that kind of approach. Emotional depth does not suffer with that approach. And, it has a great “Look.”
HC – A great deal of your archive focuses on the American landscape, you once said that its craziness, the humor, the bizarre, the loneliness, and its starkness give you a kick. Could you elaborate on that and perhaps the distinctly American vision that preoccupies you?
BU – The American Landscape has its concrete and pavement and angularity within which nature makes, generally, a token sort of appearance. Our discordant American aesthetic has been slow to develop a visual culture.
That automatically offers opportunities for the “Poor Lonesome Me” look, which I try to avoid. Then there is satire, or more preferably whimsy and humor. The “Pop Art” sense of graphics, when I can keep myself out of the “Kitsch Ditch,” is a hoot to work with.
There is an excitement to the energy of color and space relationships that come naturally in America. I have written on the back of my cameras the word “celebrate.” (As opposed to “incriminate”) That does not need to imply blandness, or a simplistic mentality.
HC – The classic photo essay is for the most part a thing of the past, working for LIFE must have afforded you the time and commitment to engage with your subjects, do you mourn the death of publications like LIFE and classic story telling?
BU – Yes. However, there was a formula approach that we saw in some of those essays. That’s only natural in a professional realm with the marketplace as a critical partner.
That is noticeable in much of the journalism of today, and possibly even more so in much of the art community. Not that this is anything new in the history of the world.
Question is, how to be better than that, and make a living.
Is teaching the answer? For me, no.
Some of the best work, but certainly not all, has been done by independently wealthy folks.
I have great admiration for those sturdy souls that are simply bound and determined to do things as they think they should be, and let the commercial chips fall where they may.
HC – The death of Martin Luther King was one of the defining moments in a very tumultuous chapter in American history, after photographing him in life, it must have been hard to photograph his funeral, how did his death effect you personally and more broadly the American experience?
BU – It was a heartbreak, from which we gained courage.
HC – Most people would give their left leg to shoot for Magnum, being given the stripes, was it a defining moment in your career? Do you feel like it pushed you as a photographer?
BU – Yes. Magnum was small when I was a member, and we hung out together. Those conversations were life changing.
HC – There are echoes of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work in your own, his ability to squeeze the uncanny out of the everyday, what was it like working with the man? What do you look for when taking a photograph?
BU – I showed my work to HCB quite a few times, and will never forget some of his most direct advice. “Respect Your Subject.” Study the Quattrocento painters. Never explicit in detailed methodology, his advice was the kind of head-trip that forced growth, if one was capable.
HC – Having been twice president for the agency, what do you think Magnum is to photography now, do you think its haloed mantle is still relevant with shifts in contemporary photography?
BU – I left Magnum in 1983, after 15 years as a member, when it was quite small compared to today’s Magnum population. I left because, as another ex-Magnum photographer, Ernst Haas, so eloquently put it: “after a while, being in Magnum is like holding hands and dancing in a circle.”
I agree with that “ holding hands” observation, but would also suggest the same was true after being with Life, or any other organization for a prolonged time.
I do not have informed knowledge or opinion about today’s Magnum, but I’m sure their standards are very high.
All of those environments have their own theology, points of view about how they, as a group, see themselves in the context of the big outside world.
It is helpful to once in a while stir the stew.
HC – You were there at the beginnings of pushes to take photography seriously as an art form and for it to be institutionally recognized, photography as art, is it even relevant? What do you consider its most important function?
BU – Careful! To dwell within definitions can be to embalm the spirit. Suggestion: Think less about definitions, figure out who you are, and run with that.
It is easy to hide behind superficially facile sensationalism and call it journalism. It is easy to hide out in facile gimmickry and call it art.
My heartfelt respect does go out to the great conflict photographers that sometimes lose their own lives trying to make ours better. I think of James Foley, of Robert Capa and Phillip Jones-Griffiths of Magnum and Larry Burrows of Life Magazine.
HC – You seem to be very much concerned with freedom as a philosophy, in life and photography. How hard has it been to navigate this territory in a career shooting for others and for yourself?
BU – The hope is to find one’s natural way of being. That takes years of trial and error and experimentation. Some people never figure that out, or decide to hole up in a lucrative cave of some sort. There can be pain and pleasure in both of those journeys.
Much of what we call talent is really a lot of hard work.
To identify what one really loves, to express that passion with an evolved personal vocabulary, is to justify the gift of life.
It has sometimes been very difficult financially. However, I have found frequently that the very best art directors and curators, and some, but not all gallery owners, really respond to artists that have the courage, drive, and unrest to push themselves and the medium.
That’s called individuality, and that can translate to excitement, and that can translate to a mortgage payment – if you’re hanging out with the right people.
That, hooked up with heart, mind, and energy creates great work. And, it helps to have a little luck!
Burk Uzzle – Website.