At aged 23, Burk Uzzle was one of the youngest photographers ever hired by Life. Born in North Carolina, Burk was devoted to communicating his perception of a changing American sensibility in the 1960s, including the culturally defining moment that Bobbi Kelly and Nick Ercoline greeted the dawn at Woodstock. He has since twice been elected as President of Magnum Photos.
Rankin: Do you think Life made people more aware that they’re being photographed, and more aware of what a photograph represents?
Burk Uzzle: Life gave you enough time to become invisible, which is when you got the real pictures. I always found that the best work came right at the end of the story, as by then you had become part of the chemistry. Then, after the advent of People and the demise of classic photojournalism, people stopped being given that amount of time to work, unless they were doing their own book. It became more contrived, with the Annie Leibovitz sensibility of everything being manufactured.
The great thing about working for Life was the whole ideology of going for that exalted moment. It had to have something really superlative about it. Life was about the population at large. It was not Vogue. Most of my life, I’ve read fashion magazines because I admire and respect what that world does, but I never personally wanted to be part of it. I would have never felt comfortable doing it. I’m from a small town. It’s more intense here than it ever was in New York, because I get to know the people more deeply. I’m more involved with them.
A lot of fashion photographers feel uncomfortable about the world that they’re in but don’t admit it.
Life, because of its small town orientation, seemed to care about real people, and it encouraged me to do that. The magazine really liked the idea of sincerity and reality. From the very beginning, Luce wanted to do this very real thing. You could go into a small town and you were a celebrity. They would open the town up to you. It was our job to be respectful, treat it seriously and to love it in our own way.
How did you start working at Life?
This story is one of the most telling things about what it was like. I’d been at the magazine for a year or two and I was getting more space than anybody. Bob Dylan had just come out with ‘Blowing In The Wind’, and I decided I had to hitchhike across America. I told the managing editor, Ralph Graves, that I wanted to do it as a story. He said, “You are crazy, why would you do that?” I told him I wanted to experience America and they said I couldn’t do it, so I quit Life magazine. I had two young kids, I was living in New York, broke, as always, and I said, “I’m going to hitchhike across the country”. I took some wonderful pictures, went back and asked for my job back. They said, “Well, you’re an asshole, but a great photographer,” and gave me my job back. Who else would do that? I knew then that I couldn’t live within the Life theology anymore. That’s when I really became a photographer.
You famously photographed Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King was my first magazine assignment, when I was 20 years old, for a black magazine named Jet, and I photographed him over the years. When he was killed, I was on an airplane. My wife met me at the airport with a bag of film and said, “Martin Luther King’s just been killed; here’s a bag of film and a strobe”. She had bought me a ticket for a plane, which left in half an hour. I went to Memphis immediately and photographed his funeral.
How did you feel?
Terrible. I really loved the man. He was supposed to speak in Wilson the day he was killed. It was a real blow to the Civil Rights Movement. There are a lot of people in Wilson who are really active in politics, and were really close to him.
Your work is still so incredibly emotive and exciting. Why do you think you are still taking pictures?
I was 23 and had been at the Chicago Life bureau for two weeks. Everybody was telling me how to succeed. One photographer, Robert W Kelly said, “Now Burk, I want you to know the secret to being a Life photographer. You shoot every picture for the managing editor”.
I thought to myself, “You stupid shit, you don’t have a ball to call your own”. If you’re taking pictures for the fucking managing editor, give it up right now – you’ve got nothing to stand on, there’s no you there. That was true of a lot of Life photographers. A lot of them got to a point where they’d made enough money, I suppose. I never had a lick of sense about money, so I’ve always needed to make it. I’ve always stayed busy, between one alimony and another, wanting to have the latest good lens and so on.
I was always curious. I don’t like sitting in one place, even physically, geographically, or artistically. You just have to be hungry. I still love the medium of photography. I love the craft. I get a kick out of it; the rhetoric of reality fascinates me. One of the first stories I heard while working at Life was about a great photographer, Carl Mydans. He was a hero for all of us, one of the legends of the business. He was walking down the hallway in the photographers’ lounge, and saw an intern pushing a grocery cart. He glanced down and realised it was full of his pictures from the war. He said, “Where are you going with those?” The guy said, “I’m off to the incinerator. They told us to clean out the files”. He had the prints, the negatives, shooting match, contact sheets and everything, and was headed to burn them. That’s why I never wanted to be a staff photographer. I wanted to own my copyright. I own everything. Now all of these prints have been scanned and I have digital files of them. People are always asking what my favourite photograph is, and I always say the next one.
You made a conscious decision not to be staff; did you feel you were excluded from the gang?
I felt more individual, but I was always made welcome. I liked the people – people that I never dreamed I’d meet, like Alfred Eisenstaedt. Cornell Capa took me to lunch in my first week and he said, “You think you’re a shit hot young photographer? Let me tell you something: take care of those legs, because if you ain’t got legs, you ain’t nothing. You’re only as good as your legs”.
Was it painful for you when Life ended?
It was. I saw it coming so there was that, but since the age of 12 I’d known that I wanted to be a Life photographer. I was living in a really little town; its only claim to fame is that it’s on Highway 301, between New York and Miami. My family got Life magazine every week. There was David Douglas Duncan in Korea, or Gene Smith. All these great stories were happening and I knew then that I wanted to be a photographer.
Do you think it taught you how to see the world?
Absolutely. We had no television set so it was my window to the world. It made me realise that there was life outside the limits of that little town. I looked at those pictures and wanted to be the person taking them, having those experiences.
I got married and had two kids by the time I was 21. We moved to Houston. We didn’t even have enough money to get furniture. That year, I went to the Houston library and looked at every issue of the magazine. I really immersed myself into that culture. But I would always shoot for myself – I always intuitively knew to do that. When Life did finally give me a job, I knew I had to work hard; I had to fake if I could ride a horse and all that. They educated me. They sent me around the world. One of my first assignments was to go to South Dakota to photograph a blizzard. A kind reporter gave me a tip and I went and bought myself some long underwear. I never went to college, didn’t want to; I would have rather died than have to sit in school another day. They gave me the education I never had.
See more of our exclusive interviews with the photographers from Life magazine in Issue One of The Hunger, and on hungertv.com