Sept 12, 2016
By Bill Rader, Contributor
Stepping back in time
I approached the door of an old building in the former tobacco mecca of Wilson North Carolina, where a once-booming city is now a quiet town attempting a renaissance, much like so many others around the country.
The area was very quiet and the large red steel doors secure without a doorbell to summon the occupant. I knocked a few times, but quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be noticed, so I phoned from my cell to announce my presence.
In an historic building that once housed an indoor car dealership from the early part of the last century, now sits a quiet and even more historic studio. A studio with the walls covered in massive photos: some from nearly 50 years ago, others from as recently as last month. Most are carefully thought out images of the people and places that make the United States very unique, and many others depict a past we might like to forget: the tumultuous time of uncertainty and experimentation, the 1960s.
These are the current studios of Burk Uzzle. Uzzle has been on the front lines of history for over six decades.
From his first assignment, for Jet Magazine taking photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, through today; he has been in and around most any event that has been of political or cultural significance.
You might not know him by name, but you know his photos. They are some of the most iconic of the 20th century, spanning from the turbulent era of the 1960s.
He has been documenting history, from the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam Nam to his interesting views of the American experience today.
His photos mark iconic people and important events, and are topped with often whimsical and outrageous views of the people and places which are part of his uniquely American experience. These experiences have been cataloged in books and magazines, and displayed in just about every major museum.
From the battlefields of Southeast Asia, to the streets of Birmingham during the civil rights marches, he has been in the middle of the action photographing all the emotion and turmoil, fully understanding that he was recording history.
Photojournalist to entrepreneur
Burk started as a 14-year-old photographer with the Raleigh News and Courier, but was recognized as a talented photojournalist and was picked up as the youngest photographer ever hired for Life magazine at the age of 23.
He went on to be the president of Magnum photography, leaving when he became troubled that, at the time, only a few in the organization were producing the vast majority of revenues. He said that this was not fair and that he could do better on his own.
From this point on, Burk created his own business and managed every aspect. From the actual creative work to marketing and bookkeeping. He contracts representatives to help him sell his work through large galleries, but he also does some of this himself at his studios in Wilson NC.
I guess I am an entrepreneur, have been my entire life. The best part is I have been in control of most things when I wasn’t being assigned projects.” – Burk Uzzle
His early photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and the heart of protests and turmoil are a stark contrast from his photography of Woodstock where he documented the human experience from a different viewpoint. There, his photo of a couple embracing on a muddy hill became the photo that defined the Woodstock generation and was featured as the album cover of the event recordings.
As I viewed his photographs in the museums where they are currently being displayed, I had time to discuss the adventures of this seasoned photographer and businessman in depth. There is a backstory to every photo that is often even more interesting than the picture itself.
One thing I took away from my visit: To live a profitable life as an artist, you must also be a great entrepreneur. Lacking the business skills that Burk clearly has, you are at great risk to end up the proverbial starving artist.
Burk clearly demonstrates mastery of my top two lessons of entrepreneurship:
- Do what you love
- Do what you know
An anthology of his life’s work is currently on display in three museums simultaneously in the Raleigh Durham North Carolina area.
ArtNet News listed the three simultaneous exhibitions in North Carolina’s Triangle as some of the must-see blockbuster exhibitions of the summer.
If you’re in the area it’s worth a look to see inside the second half of the 20thcentury from the prospective of a life long photographer, adventurer and entrepreneur.