Currently based in Wilson, North Carolina, Burk Uzzle began his documentary photography career in his late teens as a staff photographer with the News & Observer in Raleigh. A few years later in 1958, at the age of twenty, he embarked on his first magazine assignment to photograph Martin Luther King Jr. at the preacher’s home in Atlanta. Uzzle went on to be hired by LIFE magazine at twenty-three years old and then to join Magnum, the prestigious international cooperative agency of documentary photographers, for which he served as president in 1979 and 1980. During his fifteen years at Magnum, he captured important images of the era, including King’s funeral. Uzzle’s iconic photograph of a couple at the 1969 Woodstock music festival embracing under a quilt became the cover of the soundtrack album that accompanied the film documenting the event. His work is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.
During his long and successful career, Uzzle was not known as a photographer of the South in particular. His return in 2007 to live in and photograph his home state, however, has led to new directions in his work. Uzzle’s photographs for Southbound showcase rural residential and commercial locales that carry an unassuming (and sometimes slightly kitschy) Southern charm and character. GB America (2010), for example, features the familiar rural iconography of flags painted on barn roofs. Shot in southeastern North Carolina, the image suggests rural pride in America as a land blessed by God; yet one of the flags is the rebel flag, and so the landscape also captures an unashamed belief in the values of the Confederacy, perhaps, or a defiant sense of heritage. Uzzle’s photograph presents remnants of decay in the heavily rusted items—a mid-century car, a trailer, and garden tools—that fill the barn in the image’s foreground. The fresh colors on the barns’ exteriors offer a confident expression of pride, yet the contents hidden within are past their prime. Uzzle’s sunny, colorful photograph offers a subtle metaphor for the barns as symbols of Southern pride associated with a long-gone past.
Tire Swing (2009) presents a different image of the Southern landscape. Taken in southwestern Virginia, the photograph captures the sensual feel of the place; one can imagine the sound of the leaves rustling underfoot and the coolness in the air. Far from a dramatic scene, this image quietly captures the slow and poetic beauty of the American South. The photograph offers a feeling of respite as it invites envy for the Southern life and its natural wonders.
Chicken Lunch (2011) offers a droll image of a mundane moment in a rural Southern work day. Here, workers in southeastern North Carolina take a midday lunch break around an outdoor table surrounded by crab pots. Uzzle has composed the image so that the workers become tertiary figures in the upper right corner, dwarfed by the traps and blue tarps that provide their livelihood. In this and other images from his Southern work, Uzzle offers wry commentary on our complicated relationship with the environments that surround us.