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Burk Uzzle’s subjects are known to all.
From complex portraits of America’s most famous celebrated personalities to quirky compositions of life being lived to straightforward images of the country’s most vulnerable moments, Uzzle has recorded humanity at its best and worst, in its brightest and darkest moments.
In front of Uzzle’s lens were Robin Williams spontaneously ad-libbing, Bill Gates sitting on the top of a boardroom table, Ethel and Robert Kennedy attending the funeral of a slain president, friends releasing Janis Joplin’s ashes on a beach, Hugh Hefner sizing up three bunnies, thousands of young people tuning in at Woodstock and thousands of other historically notable subjects.
A team of archivists from the Kohler Foundation and Barton College is currently cataloging some 2,800 prints and 75,000 negatives from the 81-year-old photographer’s collection to be gifted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library.
“I am being given the chance to go to photographers’ heaven,” Uzzle said last week. “After I have worked 60 years, I can die happy knowing that at least the work lived on. It is an incredibly vast archive.”
At the end of a career that took him around the world, Uzzle, a Dunn native, settled in Wilson.
PRESERVED FOR SCHOLARS
“We are honored to be working on this project with Burk,” said Terry Yoho, the Kohler Foundation’s former executive director who’s now directing preservation efforts as a consultant.
“This is actually our third project in Wilson,” Yoho said. “We were invited here to work on the Vollis Simpson project. We brought in the Annie Hooper project and worked in the same conservation space and in that process met Burk and recognized the great merit of his work. He connected us with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, their special collections library, and they will be the ultimate recipient and home for this legacy.”
Conservationists are viewing Uzzle’s entire body of work including thousands of negatives, a couple thousand prints, contact sheets, transparencies, notes and files.
“There are a couple hundred thousand pieces that he sold many years ago to the Library of Congress, so while they are not here, we have acquired the rights to those so that the university will ultimately own those rights, so it is pretty much his entire body of work,” Yoho said.
“We brought four people from Kohler Foundation, each with a different area of expertise,” Yoho said. “We have four people who are either students or recent graduates of Barton College that we were able to find through the college. They are amazing workers and very tuned in to the work that is being done.”
Yoho said talks have been undertaken with Uzzle for about a year to facilitate the transfer of materials to the library.
“We brought down an appraiser from New York some weeks ago. I would say we have been working on this in earnest for two months, with a lot of work being done in advance,” Yoho said last week. “The hardcore inventorying, that has been going on this week, Monday through Friday. It has been an intense two weeks.”
Every single piece has to be inventoried. Each picture is being digitally photographed.
“We can put together these massive spreadsheets with thumbnail photographs so the appraiser can go through and identify all of the pieces,” Yoho said.
Each photo is measured for its dimensions, its medium is noted, any description or notes are cited and the negative number and date are recorded. If it is signed, a notation is made for the signature.
Photography, Yoho said, is a little bit out of the Kohler Foundation’s usual genre, but Uzzle’s work is a record of the world told with expert execution and artistic flair.
“It took only a few minutes with Burk and having Burk show us around in his studio that is apparent historically and artistically this collection is fabulous,” Yoho said. “It is meaningful. It is something that needs to be preserved for scholars and other people.”
The goal is to digitize the images so anybody who wants to see them can do so. The collection will have wide distribution with full public access to the material.
Yoho said the gift to the university will be completed well before year’s end.
“During Burk’s lifetime, he will still have access through the university to the images so he can still continue the business of being a photographer, but we are only months out from people being able to have access,” Yoho said. “The Kohler Foundation focuses on preservation in the arts and education in our mission. It is wonderful when we can come to Wilson and not only do preservation but also reach out and touch students and the college so there is an educational element too. So this is a perfect storm as far as we are concerned.”
Burk Uzzle was born Aug. 4, 1938 to Lucille and Archie Uzzle.
Uzzle started supporting himself as a photographer as a 14-year-old living in Dunn.
“I was selling pictures that I had taken with my Speed Graphic (camera) in my bicycle basket to the News & Observer and people like that,” Uzzle said. “So the News & Observer offered me a job when I got out of high school.”
Uzzle had no interest in going to college, so he went to straight to work.
“That was the only full-time salary job I’ve had in my whole life,” Uzzle said. “When I was 19, I got married to my wife, Cardy, and we had two sons by the time we were 21.”
“Cardy was 7 months pregnant. I said, ‘You know, I think we ought to leave Raleigh, leave the News & Observer and move to Atlanta before you have the babies.’ I had met a photographer by the name of Jay Leviton, and he said, ‘OK, you can come on down and work as my assistant.’ So that’s what I did.”
One day while Leviton was out of town, Jet magazine called.
“Jet said, ‘We need Jay to go over and photograph an interesting young black preacher that is living in Atlanta.’ And I said, ‘Well, Jay is out of town, but I am a photographer and I work for him. And they said, ‘Well we almost have got to have you do it because it has to be done right away for the next edition.’ So they said, ‘Go to this address, and there’s this guy, Martin Luther King Jr., so take his picture and send us the film.’ So that was my very first magazine assignment.”
They used the pictures and kept using Uzzle on other assignments.
“Then, of course, when he was killed, that was a heartbreak,” said Uzzle, who later covered the civil rights icon’s funeral.
Black Star, a photo agency, had seen Uzzle’s work too. It gave him a contract to move to Houston.
“Cardy and I moved with our two boys,” Uzzle said. “I did a lot of organizing and spent a lot of time looking at all the Life magazines that had ever been published. Working for Life was a dream of mine. They finally broke down and gave me an assignment on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, so I went up and did that. Life loved it, so they hired me. I was the youngest photographer ever hired by Life.”
After a few years at Life, Uzzle joined Magnum Photos and was there for 15 years, two years as its president.
“I traveled all over the world constantly with all of these people,” Uzzle said. “In fact, I have two sons who, from time to time, would spend a year working with me traveling around the world with me. So here it all is.”
There aren’t many magazines in the world that haven’t published Uzzle’s photographs.
Uzzle said he’s greatly relieved to know that his life’s work will be saved at UNC with the Kohler Foundation’s help.
“This is one of the great bodies of people in this world, the Kohler Foundation,” Uzzle said. “They just very quietly go and acquire the work of artists and then be sure that the work goes to a happy place. They don’t make a big fuss about it, but they are doing incredible work. This is photographer heaven to have Kohler come, as serious as they are about art and all they have done.
“The Kohler Foundation has done so much. They have a great museum and they are absolutely selfless. They really want to support the arts, so when they got involved, I could not have been happier.”