Listen to Looch: interview with photographer Burk Uzzle

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Mary Lucia interviews photographer Burk Uzzle. (MPR Video)
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Burk Uzzle has enjoyed a decades-long career as a photojournalist, capturing some of the most iconic images of the past 50 years, including the photo that became the cover of the Woodstock album.

In recent years, Uzzle has moved to Wilson, N.C., and his photographic artwork has taken on new dimensions. One of Uzzle's passions, inspired by his work documenting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, is the matter of race and equality in America.

Uzzle's life and work has recently been detailed in a documentary, F11 and Be There, directed by Jethro Waters. In addition to showcasing Uzzle's work, the film includes original music by Natalie Prass. " I've known Natalie as a friend first, and then a collaborator," Waters explains in an email. "One of my really close friends and collaborators, Eric Slick (drummer of the band Dr. Dog) is Natalie's husband. … I approached Eric and Natalie very early on, within the first 2 months of working on F11 and Be There, and asked if they'd like to compose and perform the original score. I knew that all I really wanted for the film was Eric's percussion and Natalie's vocal stylings, with some minimal instrumentation … and Natalie and Eric basically just improvised as we watched the film together. They are marvelous composers and musicians. Of everything people have commented on concerning F11, the music has time and again been a crowd favorite."

F11 and Be There is currently available in a shortened format as part of the Reel South series from PBS and can be watched on the PBS app. The full feature film is currently available for streaming on OVID.TV and on Vimeo on Demand.

Watch Mary Lucia's interview with Burk Uzzle in the video player above, and read a transcript of the interview below.

Interview Transcript

MARY LUCIA: Hey guys, it's Looch, and I could not be more thrilled than to introduce this guest via Zoom: a documentarian, a photojournalist, an artiste, Burk Uzzle.

Burk, how are you?

BURK UZZLE: I am delighted to be here with you, and I'm delighted to be alive at this point in my life!

I was just going to say, you know, as a person for over decades and decades has been the documentary person documenting everything, what was it like to be the subject of a documentary?

Well, because the man was such a great photographer, you know, we literally became brothers, swapped ideas back and forth, and it was just magnificent for both of us, and I learned so much from working with Jethro Waters. It was fantastic.

Jethro Waters and Burk Uzzle
Jethro Waters and Burk Uzzle. (courtesy Jethro Waters)

To say that you have ambition and drive is the understatement of the century, because you started working when you were a kid, and taking photographs, following fire engines and getting your work published and printed then in the newspaper when you were a kid, basically.

Fourteen!

Wow. You knew then, "This is what I want to do." College wasn't in the cards for you?

I thought I'd become a photographer! And it's been a wonderful decision to have made.

When I was starting my life as a photographer at age 14, you know, one uses what one can find. You know, I bought a little camera with the proceeds from a paper route, but the medium kept changing, you know, and here I am in the era of digital — incredible things we can do with a digital camera! But I had to grow with the medium, and that's the wonderful thing about being my age.

Yes.

I think that the photographer is the true rock star in all of this, and I love delving into people's process as a photographer, as an artist, as a vision maker, I gotta say that you — maybe it was right place, right time — but you have captured some of the most iconic, incredibly moving photographs. A young, 23-year-old hired by Life magazine, that's unusual.

The youngest photographer they ever hired. It was wonderful. That was my education. They threw me, they bounced me all over the world, you know; one stop after another for many years, and it was fantastic.

And as far as your work, I think the body of work, I mean it's so disciplined but so vast, and you know, particularly, any documentation of the Civil Rights movement, of Dr. King. Let's go back a little bit: so you were born in North Carolina—

Yes.

...and then, when you started work, that's when you left. Did you go to New York? Were you sort of homeless, living out of a suitcase for a while?

I left, I got married when I was 19; my wife and I moved to Atlanta, and by the time, we had a couple of kids right away, and I got a phone call from Jet magazine. They said, "Well, can you go do a photograph of Martin Luther King sitting on a couch?" I said, "Yes!" And I worked for Jet magazine for a while after that.

And then, that agency gave me a contract to move to Houston, Texas, and continue being a magazine photographer.

And your story about Dr. King was you got a call, you went to Memphis, you were one of the first photographers, I'm assuming, that was there. Just describe what that whole scene was like there.

Well, I was met at an airport by my wife; [she] handed me a bag of film and an airplane ticket and said, "Martin Luther King has just been killed, and I know you would want to be there. The plane leaves in 20 minutes."

So I got on it and I got there, went straight to the Lorraine Motel where he had been shot, photographed the detectives on the porch still, turned my camera around and looked straight up at the window from which the assassin had shot King. And from there on out, we were all together, all of us marching around Memphis in tears with the loss of that great man.

And then you went to the funeral, or rather, the viewing. Was that a private viewing for just family or...

I had made friends with some of the newspaper photographers in Memphis, and they heard that there was going to be a viewing of the casket, the man in the casket, before it was closed, at 5:30 one morning. So very few of us got to go in and watch that, including some very closest friends.

So we went and I was able to photograph the tender photographs of people touching him and one thing and another, close the casket and send him off to Atlanta to be buried.

It was quite a sight.

Martin Luther King reviewal
Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968. (photo by Burk Uzzle)

I was just going to say you've talked about how, as a photographer, a photojournalist and an artist, that you have a responsibility. What is that exactly?

The responsibility I have, I feel I have, is to try and understand the people I'm photographing. I have to give myself to them with respect, and all the power I can with my eyes and my involvement as a photographer and you know, going to museums and studying paintings and lighting and all the rest of it. It's a tradeoff: we have to give ourselves to each other, and in the case of Martin Luther King and the funeral, you know, I had given myself to the notion of here's a great man that had meant so much to all of us, and so I did. I did all the best I could.

And doing my portraits, it's the same thing.

And some people view a photograph as a captured moment, which it is, and also it tells a story, and it sounds like you, before you even shoot subjects, want to hear from that person what their particular story is.

Yes, and particularly these days, because I've taken on a project I think which is very important: the Black people of today, leaders and powerful people, and I've been calling these people Prophets of America.

And because these great Black people, you talk about Black Lives Matter? Well, boy, do these people matter because they have come from out of the legacy of being sent over in boats where, you know, 1.5 million of them died at sea before they could get here to be sold off as slaves. And then, you know, so many of them, I think maybe at one count there's been 4,400 people that have been lynched or burned or — it's been rough being a Black person in America.

And I've brought some of these people into my studio, of course, and had them tell me their story, and I've met some amazing people. You know, how I wanted to get started doing the Prophets pictures was to photograph the sculpture from Zimbabwe, where the Black folks had made these amazing sculptures depicting families, and these amazing families were then sent to America where they had to become slaves. So I decided I wanted to, first of all, photograph these people in Africa, these family portraits and so forth, so I've brought all these big sculptors to my studio and photographed them, and now I've moved from the people that had to become slaves to the people that, as Black contemporary citizens, have done so much for our world and our society with their creativity and resilience and depth of humanity.

Theophilus Newkirk
Portrait of Theophilus Newkirk. (photo by Burk Uzzle)

And being from Minneapolis, with George Floyd, that's just over a month ago, which launched a lot of feelings, emotions, frustrations, and I don't know if you would agree with this, but I honestly think that being quarantined with the COVID-19 virus, it forced us to live differently, think differently, treat people differently, and I almost think maybe it's primed us for this moment in history of great change that's needed.

Well, I completely agree, and in terms of my own work, being the age I am, I have become more or less a prisoner in my studio, but that's fine; it has liberated me to be free and to take photographs that I probably never would have taken before, so I'm doing it, I'm doing new projects constantly, and trying to get to know these people.

And with the protests, I know you're mostly doing studio work, but did you do any photographing of any of the protests of the last month?

No, I didn't. I'm afraid to. You know, if I get COVID, I'm dead. You know, I'm 82; statistically, I'm gone. So I would have loved to have been there, and when I was younger I would have been there. I'm going to bring their essence into my pictures, you can believe that. I will capture their spirit, and I will do it as soon as I can resume my Prophets pictures.

My procedure is to talk to them, get to know them, and once I've sort of figured out their zone, what they represent, what their essences are, and so it's a dialogue. We hold hands and we do these pictures together, and it's a wonderful, joyous experience. I love these people I photograph.

Did you ever meet Gordon Parks?

Oh yes! When I was a young Life photographer. I was invited over to his house and we talked and we got to know each other. Absolutely. Amazing man. What a beautiful man! And an amazing photographer — how could one person be given so much talent, I have never figured out they way he was loaded with it. He could really take photographs. But he did the same thing; I mean, the depth and dimension he brought to his Black subjects was so great. Good for him.

Gordon Parks in 2005
Gordon Parks in 2005. (Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images)

And for you, the story that is dumbfoundingly interesting to me is, first of all, you were photographing a Klan rally. Now, what does that even feel like to be there with your camera at such a hate-spurred event?

Well, at that point, I was working for Life magazine, I was very young, and I could hardly speak English; I was still speaking Southern. And there was this rally about to happen up in the mountains of North Carolina, and Life said we want you to go photograph, and they actually got the Grand Dragon to allow me to be there, and he made an announcement: "There's a Life photographer here, but don't hurt him; I told him he could be here." So I photographed the rally, and they burned the cross, and you know, I did all those, and then I'm taking the film out of my camera, and this hand lands on the back of my shoulder — pa-WOW! Bam! — a big, strong hand on the back of my shoulder, and I thought I was going to die! Be killed! And I turned around, and the guy was a guy I had been to high school with. He was one my high school buddies. He said, "What are you doing working for those jerks up at the North? You need to come back home, be in the South. Be like me; I got myself a good woman and a good job." I said, "Well, thank you, but I better stay where I am."

So, it's scary, but you know, you have to try to understand all people, I feel, even if you don't like them.

You know, I have to tell you a secret: You know, I grew up in a little Southern town which was a stronghold of the Klan when I was growing up, and my dad once told me, he said, "You know, all my friends are members of the Klan, and because I'm in a political job, I can't join the Klan, but I probably would because all my friends are in the Klan." But he was the most peaceful, dear man; he would never hurt a fly. People loved him.

My mother — I have a diploma in my house right now declaring my mother as one of the daughters of the American Confederacy. To go from that to celebrating Black Lives Matter? Well, it's been a journey, and it's the people that have led me through it.

And if you had to say, as you have progressed as a photographer, as a man, as a person, as a human being, do you feel as though you kind of operate from a place that's not of fear?

Oh, I'm scared all the time.

Are you?

I mean, Life, they had me in Vietnam, I was in Borneo, I was in all kinds of really scary places. They sent me into work in Vietnam, I had to go in and work inside the Viet Cong lines to photograph a guy. I've been shot at — a lot! I've had people killed standing next to me. So hell yeah, I get scared. But what can I do? I'm there. I get nauseous at the sight of blood unless I'm behind a camera. And then it doesn't bother me. As long as I've got a camera in my hand. So that works, but sure, I'm scared. If you're smart enough to work a camera, you're smart enough to be scared.

Also, I digress, but did you know Peter Beard?

I never met him but of course I knew who he was, and I've seen your thing that you did on him, which I thought was very beautiful, and thank you for doing that. He had a life completely unlike mine — boy, I mean, you know, I'm a one-woman kind of man! (laughter)

I can only do one, you know? All I can do to do one. You have to treat them right! I don't try to do more than one. (laughter)

Burk, tell me how you — actually, I should ask: You were hired to photograph Woodstock?

No. No, no, no. I'll tell you about Woodstock. My wife, Cardy, and my two boys, Tad and Andy, who were very young, we were living in New York, and we heard about Woodstock, we'd just go up and hear some tunes.

So when things like that are happening, like Martin Luther King and so forth, I never take assignments. Editors think they know everything; they don't know sh*t! You know, editors just - they're not there. So what you do is see what you think you should see, and you photograph what's important, and it always changes anyway. Woodstock changed terrifically. We got in, we pitched our tent, and then Woodstock became Woodstock. So no, I didn't take an assignment; I went there on my own.

And then, of course, my wife and kids and I were photographing living in a lean-to that was made on a barbed-wire fence, and then, you know, I go look around, and there they were; that was the cover picture. And I saw those people taking their clothes off up by the lake, and I said, "Well! Wow!" So I went down to the stage where the photographers were on assignments, you know, stupidly, doing what the editors told them to do, which was to stay on the stage, and I borrowed film from them. So I went back up to where the people were taking their clothes off, and I took pictures, and the cover of "Woodstock."

Woodstock album cover
Photo taken by Burk Uzzle that became the cover of the Woodstock album . (Burk Uzzle)

And you realized quickly that Woodstock really, what started as a music festival, the music almost seemed secondary to the people.

Well, indeed, and that's why my picture of the Ercolines hugging each other, you know, after it was all said and done, they realized that American culture — hey, there were people, hippies, it was hippie heaven with these people doing drugs and this stuff, they were taking care of each other, so there they were. The people became the story, and so they decided, well, they would put that picture on the cover. It was a people story.

But the Woodstock cover has become one of the most recognizable pictures in the whole history of photography, and when I die, you know, they'll do this little thing, "Well, he's the guy that took the picture on the 'Woodstock' album." Well, that's fine with me, it's a lovely photograph, you know, I did it well, and it's there for all the world to see. And that's fine by me. I love that idea.

You know, it's about communication. You know, we take pictures because we want to give people what we feel, and what we feel is important to see. They have to feel it, too. Otherwise, why bother? Why would I want to take pictures if I wasn't going to let other people try to feel what I felt?

A great photographer, he was working at Life, John Mealy, said, "You have to look at something that speaks to you."

And we will link to the documentary as well as, I mean, all your work; one just need Google your name, and I really doubt that people would only associate you with that Woodstock photograph, which is fantastic, and it's all of that, but some of those images, just of the ordinary people, unknown, it, like you said, it's a communication starter, and people come to the exhibit and they know people in the photograph and they start talking to one another as neighbors, and that's so significant to me.

To that point, and thank you so much for mentioning that. I was given a commission by a little North Carolina museum in Greenville, North Carolina, and they gave me a commission to photograph contemporary Black people, all kinds of people: people that have been in jail, people that had lived homeless and some still are homeless, and people that have made a lot of money, and good artists, all kinds of people, and we will do an exhibition only of Black people. I'm not sure a museum had ever done that before. And this little museum in Greenville, North Carolina, did that. And let me tell you: It broke all the attendance records. And the people that came, all the Black families came, and they brought everybody they knew, and that can be quite a list; it's a community. And they came, they came as groups and big families, and they stood there, and they looked, and they cried, they cried with joy that they were seeing each other life size! Now, that is a thrill. That is one of the great experiences of my whole life.

Are you frustrated with what you might perceive as the lack of progress within people's hearts and minds?

Internationally, no. I'm seeing people marching all over the world now because George Floyd and all the people that have been killed — all the Black people that have been killed. There's so many; now people are beginning to get it. So, I'm back in North Carolina, and the nice thing about all the people I know, I don't know one Black person that would tell me that he's been treated badly by a white person. I have Black friends and they say, "You know, one to one, people are fine; it's the institutionalized junk, you know? It's the bad government politicians. That's where it goes bad."

But here we are. You know, I have an idea that humanity is humanity, and people have their hearts, they have their minds, and our hearts, our hearts, and a need to love and to be respected, a need to make a living and raise our children. In Wilson, North Carolina, as it would be in New York City — I lived 30 years in New York City, and I love New York City, but now, I'm loving Wilson, North Carolina. It's a beautiful town, and it's given itself to me as I've given myself to it, and the people I bring into my studio are wonderful people. I love these people.

Woodstock album cover
Burk Uzzle photographing Theophilus Newkirk. (Jethro Waters)

There's so much that we could go on and on about. Your work is important; it's personal. I think it's very revealing about who you are as a person.

Well, thank you. I'm a big mess, you know? I never went to college, never wanted to go to college, and I've — you know, the world educated me, and the people educated me that I have given myself to, just standing there, asking them to help me understand who they are. What can be a better education than that?

And you have been part and are part of multiple revolutions in this country, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

I have.

It's really been something to see. I mean, I can remember marching on the street back in the terrible decade of the '60s, and I was marching with the Black folks, and people were throwing bricks off of the top of the damn buildings trying to hit people on the head. You know, you can get killed that way. But I managed to survive, and so did those people, and we're still fighting racism in America. We still have a lot of racism in America. So we have to get better at being equal.

That is beautiful. Thank you so much, Burk. And I appreciate your work, and I hope that this just opens up to a whole new audience for you.

That would be very nice. And what you folks do on MPR, coming from this community that had killed George Floyd, it brings tears to my eyes just to even hear about it, so thank you for what you do. Mwah! [chef's kiss] Love you for what you do, too.

Mwah! [chef's kiss]

All right.

Thank you.

You bet.

External Links

Burk Uzzle - official site

F11 and Be There - official site

5 Photos

  • Burk Uzzle image
    Burk Uzzle photographing Alma Cobb Hobbs with her ancestors' tombstones. Her ancestors featured here were former slaves. (Jethro Waters)
  • Burk Uzzle image
    Step dancers performing. (photo by Burk Uzzle)
  • Burk Uzzle image
    Vine Sisters performing. (photo by Burk Uzzle)
  • F11 and Be There poster
    'F11 and Be There' is a documentary from director Jethro Waters about the life and work of photographer Burk Uzzle. (courtesy Jethro Waters)
  • Burk Uzzle image
    Burk Uzzle portrait (Jethro Waters)