Burk Uzzle has recorded humanity at its best and worst, in its brightest and darkest moments.
Over the span of decades, his vast catalog has included complex portraits of America’s most famous personalities to quirky compositions of life to straightforward images of the country’s vulnerability.
In front of Uzzle’s lens: 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.
One of his most famous photos was taken at Woodstock 50 years ago — a young couple embracing in early morning hours of the festival.
A team of archivists from the Kohler Foundation and Barton College in Wilson 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,” said Uzzle, whose many photos appeared in LIFE magazine.
At the end of a career that took him around the world, Uzzle, a Dunn native, now lives in Wilson. He will turn 81 in August.
In addition to ongoing preservation of his digital works, his life also is preserved in documentary, “F11 and Be There,” which screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham this year.
“After I have worked 60 years, I can die happy knowing that at least the work lived on. It is an incredibly vast archive.”
Preserving a legacy
Terry Yoho is the Kohler Foundation’s former executive director who is now directing preservation efforts as a consultant. Yoho said it’s an honor to work on the project.
“This is actually our third project in Wilson,” Yoho said. “We were invited here to work on the Vollis Simpson project (who created whirligigs). We brought in the (scultpor) 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. Yoho said talks have been ongoing with Uzzle for about a year to facilitate the transfer of materials to the library.
“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,” Yoho said. “So it is pretty much his entire body of work.”
Four people with the Kohler Foundation are working on the project, each with a different area of expertise. They are working with students and recent graduates at Barton College.
“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.
Then comes what Yogo calls the “hardcore inventorying.”
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 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,” Yoho said. “So this is a perfect storm as far as we are concerned.”
Burk Uzzle was born Aug. 4, 1938, to Lucille and Archie Uzzle. He 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.”
When his wife was seven months pregnant, they decided to move to Atlanta, and he was hired to work as an assistant to a photographer named Jay Leviton.
One day while Leviton was out of town, Jet magazine called. It turned out to be a life-changing call.
“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 hiring 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, working 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 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.”