Artist Profile: Burk Uzzle On "Perceptions and Recognitions"

Feb 10, 2017

Credit Janet Kagan

Next week is Valentine’s Day but February is dedicated to Black History Month which recognizes the contributions of the black community in shaping this country and the world. The Greenville Museum of Art has an exhibit on display “Perceptions and Recognitions” which highlights African-Americans from eastern North Carolina and their personal stories. The museum commissioned world renowned photographer and eastern North Carolina native, Burk Uzzle for the exhibit. His career has taken him around the world capturing historic events, including the first Woodstock Music and Arts Festival to the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chris Thomas spoke with him at his studio in Wilson and has this.  

Burk Uzzle’s creative space is a bohemian’s dream come true. It’s tucked away at the corner of a main thoroughfare and a side road but the doors are painted bright red.  There’s room enough for work, leisure, and rest. And it’s old – very old.

“They sold Hudson’s and Essex’s cars. Essex had spoke wheels and made in 1913 and I have one of the spoke wheels over there as a souvenir. Then they made caskets in here. It’s been a florist, bicycle shop, men’s clothing, it was a Texaco gas station for awhile.”  

His studio and much of life work – his archives – are on the bottom floor. The walls are brick and sparse – save for some large prints of his more recent work. Copies of those prints are on display at the Greenville Museum of Art as part of its latest exhibit.

The subject: black people of eastern North Carolina. The 25 photos feature local residents – including Judge Wendy Hazleton and Dr. Alma Hobbs, former deputy assistant secretary of administration at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“African Americans are beautiful people to photograph. They’re emotive. They respond. They’re available emotionally in a conversation. It’s been a great, great thing to learn over the years, all my life. And that’s been my experience.”

The exhibit is titled “Perceptions and Recognitions” and its purpose is to shed light on a community often found on the margins.

“This is not a preachy exhibition…it’s simply offering very clear and poignant and poetic documentation of very beautiful people doing great things and just being themselves.”

Uzzle grew up in Dunn, North Carolina – about 40 miles southeast of Raleigh – as Jim Crow began its violent, gradual death. Through his father’s work with the town government and his own paper route, Uzzle saw how things were on the ‘other side of the tracks.’

“For instance, I had a paper route and I would be in and out of all the neighborhoods even doing that early in the morning so it was very clear to me that inequality was a given, economically and socially.”

Appropriately enough, his first assignment for Life Magazine nearly 60 years ago involved visiting the home of an up-and-coming minister from Atlanta: Martin Luther King, Jr. He’d take his photo again about a decade later – while the Civil Rights Leader laid in his casket following his assassination.  That photo – and others chronicling the aftermath of the shooting – are on display at the Greenville Museum and in Uzzle’s studio. But they almost weren’t taken at all.

“I was on an airplane and my wife at the time heard he had been killed, met me at the airport gate, handed me a plane ticket to Memphis, and a bag of film and said ‘Dr. Martin Luther King has just been killed.’ I know you’d want to be in Memphis. The next flight leaves in 20 minutes and the gate is just down there so off I went.”   

Much of Uzzle’s career has been on his own terms – to some degree. Apart from a brief stint with the News & Observer as a teenager, he’s made his living freelancing. Through the lens of his camera, he saw the 1960s unfold and his perceptions change.  He took his most famous photo at Woodstock – an intimate moment between two people, wrapped in a blanket as the sun rose during the festival’s final day.  It became the official Woodstock album cover and Uzzle said it wouldn’t have happened without a little help from his friends. Many of them were also freelancers and while they were taking pictures of the acts on stage, Uzzle said he was milling with the spectators on Max Yasgur’s farm.  

“And they would say ‘well, the editor wants us to stay here and be sure we get Jimi Hendrix or get Ravi Shankar or what have you. And I would say ‘well, that’s fine and I do hope you fulfill your responsibilities to your editor and meanwhile, would you loan me a few rolls of color film’ because I didn’t have enough rolls to shoot all the stuff that I was seeing. And so actually the cover of the Woodstock album was taken on borrowed color film.”

He also saw the other side of the decade – riots and urban decay at home and napalm bombs in Southeast Asia. Uzzle said his favorite assignments were the ones where he captured the lives of everyday people – especially in his neck of the woods.  

“I would take it upon myself to go photograph the Deep South routinely and hang out with people. Sharecroppers – black sharecroppers – who would have to feed their kids lard sandwiches daily. So though they weren’t riots, they certainly led me to a very clear understanding of what life could be about in these arenas.

Over the past few years – as class, political, and race based tensions have reached new heights – parallels between the 1960s and today have been made. And like in the days of inner city riots and open talk of revolution, Uzzle says misconceptions about the black community are prevalent.

“I’d like to say that everything is all perfect and wonderful and shiny, new, and great but it’s not so. I see a lot of indication of racism even amongst friends where there’s this kind of sly insinuation that’s maybe even not clearly articulated but you see it behavior and the way people will seat themselves in a restaurant and seat themselves in general that racism has not been eradicated.”  

Color and shadow feature prominently in Uzzle’s newest exhibit. Bright, vibrant hues – especially depicting church attendees in their Sunday best – are placed in contrast with stark, colorless backdrops. In one photo, the subject’s face isn’t seen – only the markings of a past life.  Another photo was shot in a cemetary – a woman standing by the gravestones of ancestors born slaves and laid to rest as citizens.

These are perceptions and recognitions of individuals living in eastern North Carolina – a small sampling of more than 36 million people across the United States.

Public Radio East is a media sponsor of “Perceptions and Recognitions.” The exhibit runs through April 30th at the Greenville Museum of Art on South Evans Street in Downtown Greenville.