She stands beneath a spreading oak tree, chin lifted proudly, her figure swathed in a gold dress with a sash flowing behind her, lifted by the wind. Before her is a pair of tombstones bearing the names of her ancestors.
The photograph of Dr. Alma Cobb Hobbs is a portrait of pride, strength and dignity, framed with a sense of timelessness.
“She is magnificent,” exults Burk Uzzle, her portraitist. “Tell me she is not magnificent!”
The Hobbs portrait is representative of the latest body of work of Uzzle, a photographer with an international reputation who has returned to North Carolina to explore his native soil. Setting up a studio in an 18,000-square-foot, century-old pair of buildings in downtown Wilson, Uzzle is chronicling with his camera the culture of the African-American society that he grew up with in Harnett County. His new work is on display for the first time in an exhibition at the Greenville Museum of Art titled “Perceptions and Recognitions: African Americans of Eastern North Carolina.”
The subjects of the exhibition are Uzzle’s neighbors from the Coastal Plain – church ladies in their Sunday finery, a gang member lavishly tattooed, a troupe of black mimes. The exhibit reveals ordinary folk in extraordinary incarnations.
There is a theme to these latest works of Uzzle that is uncommon but familiar. The lighting and composition of the photographs are reminiscent of fine art on canvas. Uzzle, who says he spends more time studying painting than photography, is trying to capture the exquisite lines and flow of the great masters. In a recent tour of his studio, he reeled off the names of his influences from the art world – Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Matisse, Paul Klee, Gustav Courbet, the Dutch and Flemish masters of the Renaissance.
Uzzle’s photography is amply represented in the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, but he prefers to go there to study the painters. “I could spend half a day looking at the art,” he says. “That’s how you learn composition.”
At the Greenville museum, one of the most impressive pieces is a 60 inch-by-75 inch print titled “Congregation Ladies.” Uzzle visited black churches around Wilson and persuaded the women of the congregations to pose in his downtown studio. In the image, 21 women are arrayed before a black backdrop in splendid Sunday dress, each striking a distinctive pose meticulously arranged by Uzzle. Spread before them on the floor are 217 ladies’ hats of rainbow colors, also arranged by Uzzle, that serve as a visual carpet leading the eye to the tableau of women.
I shoot pictures for emotion. I’m not interested in facts.
Photographer Burk Uzzle
African-American culture “celebrates the will to adorn,” he said. “There is an incredible sense of style. This is how these people got through slavery.”
He adds, “Speaking generally, the women are the strength of the society.”
African-American men are featured in two other striking photographs. One is a man dressed in black standing before a black backdrop, with a brown dreadlock mane reaching down his back below his waist. “I want you to feel his aura,” Uzzle says. “His aura is his strength and his hair.”
The other photograph shows only the subject’s back and upper arms – no face or head – his back etched in elaborate tattoos. Away from the body, details of the photograph disappear into pockets of deep black non-light.
The black-on-black photographs call to mind the abstract paintings of Mark Rothko and Jasper John, two other Uzzle influences.
Black is the color of mystery, Uzzle says, and mystery is about emotion. “I shoot pictures for emotion,” he says. “I’m not interested in facts. Facts come from the mind. Emotion comes from the heart.”
If I had it to do over again, there’s no way I would come back to North Carolina. The Republicans have ruined the state.
Photographer Burk Uzzle
Uzzle’s exploration of African-American culture brings him full circle from his early years in North Carolina. Born in Raleigh, he spent his youth in Dunn, where his dad was town manager. He began taking photographs as a teenager, selling them to newspapers, and he briefly worked as a photographer at The News & Observer. From there, he began a career that took him around the world. He was the youngest photographer ever hired by Life magazine. He went on to join the prestigious Magnum Photo cooperative, working with legends such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.
Uzzle produced some of the iconic images of the last half of the 20th Century, including the funeral of Martin Luther King and the Woodstock music festival. The cover of the Woodstock album, featuring a young couple huddled under a blanket with the festival in the background, was shot by Uzzle. (Forty years later, he found and photographed the couple again.)
Seven years ago, after living around the country – New York, Chicago, Seattle – Uzzle was persuaded to return to his home state by friends in Chapel Hill who told him North Carolina had changed for the better. He’s not satisfied with that decision.
“If I had it to do over again, there’s no way I would come back to North Carolina,” he said. “The Republicans have ruined the state.”
But he treasures Wilson and its people. At age 78, Uzzle says he is doing the best work of his career, exploring digital technology and mining the richness of Southern culture: “The South exults in eccentricity,” he says.
Uzzle’s photographs bring thousands of dollars in galleries. But he gives prints free to the people he photographs, and he takes great satisfaction in seeing them regard their images on the walls of museums.
“I give people the gift of seeing themselves being appreciated.”
Ted Vaden is a retired N&O editor who lives in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Burk Uzzle’s “Perceptions and Recognitions: African Americans of Eastern North Carolina,” is on exhibit at the Greenville Museum of Art through April 30.
There’s a reception from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday, April 7, featuring music by the Nathan Cobb Band, a performance by HYPE Step Team and a performance by JoAnn Williams.
The museum is at 807 Evans St., Greenville.gmoa.org/events/burk-uzzle-exhibit