Images Present Themselves: A Conversation With Photographer Burk Uzzle

Some of the most iconic images get captured when you’re just out for a stroll. What you do with these images is a political act.

This month is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Originally billed as the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents An Aquarian Exposition ­— 3 Days of Peace & Music,” the gathering changed American culture in unanticipated ways. Photographer Burk Uzzle became an unwitting documentarian of the event, and captured an image so representative that it became the cover of the Woodstock soundtrack album. Uzzle’s career spans six decades. He documented the tumultuous 1960s and continues to be a powerful example of how an artist can function as an agent of change. I spoke with him earlier this year in his studio in Wilson, North Carolina.

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Tom Maxwell: Can you describe your experience taking that iconic picture and your experience being a photographer at Woodstock?

Burk Uzzle: I had gotten up early one morning and left the little lean-to that I’d made for my wife and two children, and just went out to walk around. As the light came up, people started to wake up and roll out of whatever they were sleeping in or on or whatever mud puddle they were trying to transcend, and I just walked around.

This couple was standing up, wrapped in a blanket, holding each other and trying to stay warm. I think maybe they were one of the very few couples standing. Most people were still asleep. It was just so beautiful, the way they were holding themselves up and wrapped in a blanket. It all composed very nicely with the hillside in the background and the foreground objects on the left and the side. It lent itself to a very beautiful composition.

‘We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.’

As I walked up to them, I did the sort of body compose technique which street photographers do. I would sashay to the left or sashay to the right so that when I got to within the right amount of distance to make a nice composition with them standing there, filling the frame as much as it needed to be filled, they were perfectly placed. Then I quickly raised my my Leica loaded with black and white and took a few frames, and then I took my normal lens off of that camera and took a few more frames on the Leica loaded with color film. I did not have a lot of color film, because I’d gone up there to camp out with my wife and sons, and we got locked in. The rain came and the crowds came. Once we were there, we couldn’t get out.

TM: Were you on assignment?

BU: No, I had turned down all assignments. I don’t like to work on assignments — at least when it’s something that I think is important. It’s fun to do commercial assignments where somebody needs me to go be an eloquent spokesman for an oil company or whatever, but when something is happening like Woodstock or Martin Luther King’s funeral, or the pictures I do these days driving around the United States or in my studio, I don’t want any direction from any kind of editor whatsoever.

TM: You just sensed that Woodstock was a big deal.

BU: Right. I had heard about it and about the bands that were going to be there. It sounded like good music. I was living in New York, so we all decided to get out of the city for a weekend. I think it was the director of Magnum Photos in New York, to which I belonged at the time, she and her husband owned a lot of acreage up in the Catskills near Woodstock. We decided to camp on a trout stream very near to Woodstock. We pitched our tent and were having a great time on the side of the stream for a couple of days.

Then the morning the festival started, we decided, “Well, let’s drive over to Woodstock and go hear a few tunes. Then we’ll come back tonight and get back in our tent. We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.” Once in, we couldn’t get out.

TM: You said something very interesting to me, that most of the other guys were taking pictures of the bands, of the musicians.

BU: Well, they were all working on assignment. Their editors had told them to be sure to get pictures of this musician or that musician. Like I say, I don’t like to work on assignment, so I had been offered assignments but declined. I was free to respond to what actually happened.

TM: Not to get too inside baseball, but as a freelancer you also own the negatives of whatever it is that you shoot.

BU: That’s correct. I do that anyway. I would never give up copyright to anything. Even all the years I was at Life magazine, the reason I did not accept a staff position at Life magazine when offered a job was because I wanted to own the copyrights. I said, “I’d like to work for you, but I’d rather just have a contract, be a freelancer, and I’ll own the copyright to all my negatives.” That was one of the very few smart business decisions I ever made in my life.

TM: How old were you when you entered into that agreement with Life?

BU: Life hired me when I was 23. I was the youngest photographer they had ever hired. That was a good way to start learning how to be a good professional or educated. They sent me all over the world. I had never wanted to go to college. I, to this day, break into a cold sweat if I go into a classroom of any sort. I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them. They both make me feel the same way.

I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them.

TM: To pull back a little bit, the year before you attended Woodstock, you were taking pictures of Martin Luther King in his coffin. What a roller coaster that must have been.

BU: It was a roller coaster. Martin Luther King had become a hero of mine because he was my very first magazine assignment when I was about, oh, I don’t know, 19 years old.

I had quit my job. The only salaried job I ever had in my life was in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a staff photographer for the News & Observer, where I was paid, I think, $48 or $50 a week. My wife was seven months’ pregnant, so I had to find something to do. I was hired on as an assistant to a very good magazine photographer in Atlanta. He was out of town one week, and Jet magazine called up and said, “We need your boss to go and photograph Martin Luther King tonight.” I said, “Well, he’s out of town.” They said, “Well, can you take pictures?” I said, “Yeah, I’m his assistant. I was a newspaper photographer until I moved here.” They said, “Well, would you run over and photograph Martin Luther King sitting on his couch in his home? He’s a young unknown. Nobody has heard much about him, but he seems like a promising young preacher and he has a father who is a great preacher.”

I took the assignment, visited his church in Atlanta, and went to his home and did the picture. Jet magazine published it, and they continued to hire me to do more assignments. I continued to follow him. That was the beginning of the decade of social protests in the United States. It was a very interesting decade. I got beaten up. You get banged around a lot when you’re trying to photograph the kinds of demonstrations that were going on all through the ’60s, but I did. That was my first year of social protest.

TM: Did you feel that being a documentarian was, in fact, a political act?

BU: I felt that, as I do now ever more strongly, artists are probably the only people who can make a real difference with the nature of the political corruption in the country now. It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking. You do that and you get them published as often as you can and as well as you can. That’s what I endeavor to do.


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TM: Can you give me an example of one of your photographs that embodies what you just described?

BU: Life magazine gave me an assignment to spend time on death row in Chicago’s Cook county jail, because there was a man named Paul Crump, who the warden had described as sort of a hero of the jail. He had been sentenced to death, but he was doing a lot of wonderful things in the jail, attempting to mentor people and making them better people. In fact, there was a fellow in there that was having an epileptic seizure. My friend, Paul Crump, saved his life. He knew exactly what to do for him.

That story was published in Life magazine. It had so much response. People were writing all kinds of letters on Crump’s behalf to the governor, that the governor actually commuted his sentence to life imprisonment instead of death.

TM: As the decade progressed, the 1960s became more violent and divisive. There’s an extraordinary image, one that when I visit you and look at it, it shocks me in its beauty and in the way it describes the scene, which is of King in his coffin and a woman touching his face in a very loving and open and innocent gesture. I wonder if you could describe that moment.

BU: This was in Memphis, and his body was going to be shipped to Atlanta to be buried. We decided that we would hang out there and wait to hear what was going to happen. They announced they were going to open up the funeral home where his body was being kept, for just a short time. They let myself and about three or four other photographers in, and just a very few people, apparently close friends, to view his body in the open casket.

Indeed, one would see the expected kind of thing, where people would see his body and throw their hands up in horror. and cry and carry on and grieve in very visible, loud ways. We all took those pictures. Then, all of a sudden, this one woman came by, and she just reached over and caressed his face in the most loving, beautiful way, and then moved on. That picture was on the same role of film as one of the pictures of one of the very loudly demonstrating women, which became the cover of Newsweek. It was such a beautiful and tender photograph.

It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking.

A friend of mine, who lived in Chapel Hill, was here in my studio one day, looking at all the Newsweek outtakes. He saw that picture. He said, “This is such a tender photograph. Why don’t you send it off and get it scanned and get a print made of it?” which I did.

TM: Had you ever made a print of it?

BU: I had never printed it.

TM: It was just on the roll.

BU: It was just on the roll. Newsweek had taken a look at the film and they saw what they wanted and gave me the film back. Magnum sold those pictures around the world a few times. I had never printed it, and by then, that transparency was here in Wilson. The Ektachrome film in those days was not very stable, and the picture had faded terribly, but I sent it off to the man who did a lot of my scanning, Todd Gangler at the Art & Soul Lab in Seattle. He managed to salvage the picture and make a decent file out of it, which could be printed. He made a print of it, and we hung it here in the studio.

One day a tour came through the studio. One of the people in the tour saw that picture on the wall and said, “Oh, do you know who that is?” I said, “No, I have no idea. She was just a women who was being very tender with Martin Luther King.” He said, “That’s because she was one of his mistresses.” He told me her name, which I regretfully forgot to jot down. He told me their story and that Martin Luther King had a big, long history of having lots of mistresses—and indeed, that’s how J. Edgar Hoover kind of kept him in line, by threatening to tell his secrets. He never did, and Martin Luther King kept on keeping on. That picture was here and so it was interesting to know the story about it.

TM: Moving forward then to Woodstock, and you’re there because it feels like some place you should be, and you probably had a limited amount of film. You probably got a lot of good pictures, but that couple in the sleeping bag on that hill, you said the composition offered itself up to you. You could recognize how to compose the frame pretty quickly. Did you think it was anything other than a good snap when you took it?

BU: I felt, at the moment I took it, that it was a really lovely picture. I understood right away that it was a very beautiful composition. It was one of the tenderest things I had seen. It was very dark. It was a slow exposure, hand-held camera. The color film, in those days, was not very fast, before the days of digital. But yeah, even then, I felt that it sort of summarized the feeling of the place. I had been running around photographing all the people getting undressed up by the pond and so forth, and the people who had wandered away from the stage to take their clothes off and go skinny dipping in one of the little lakes up there. There was a sense of beauty and peace about the men and women who were in the nude, wandering around and having a great time. The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story. They summarized that. They were the essence of it.

TM: That’s key, really, isn’t it — because the publications who put photographers on assignment to take pictures of the well known musical groups , that was sort of a one-way communication. You concerned yourself with some of the half-million people that made up the population of that temporary community, which was the real story.

BU: Right. The people became the real story. Well, back to the story of the film: We were only expecting to stay there a few hours, for the day at most, having a couple of kids that were first-graders, basically. I stuck a pocketful of black and white film in my pocket, and we carried a little knapsack with some canned fruit and animal crackers and a poncho. You never go anywhere with kids without a poncho. That was our story, so I quickly ran out of that film.

I realized I had to shoot very selectively, and I would do one or two frames at a time rather than the characteristic three and a half rolls anytime you would see anything. I said, “Hmm. This is pretty interesting.” I kept going down to the stage. I knew a lot of the photographers, and I would borrow color film. I would tell them, “You know, the most wonderful things are happening up on the hills. People are all taking their clothes off!”

The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story.

There was one Magnum photographer who was a really good friend of mine, Charles Harbutt. I said, “Charlie, you’ve got to get up there and take some of these pictures! There is great stuff to see.” He said, “No, the editor wants me to be sure to get Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar. I’ve got to get Ravi Shankar. The editor would be furious with me if I left the stage and took those photographs, just photographed people when I need to be photographing musicians.” I said, “Well, in that case, would you loan me some film?”

There were two or three occasions when I would go down and borrow a few more rolls of film from him. That picture, the cover picture, was taken on film I borrowed from Charlie Harbutt.

TM: Momentos, like souvenirs or photographs, often tend to stand in for memories and they can replace a memory. because it recalls this thing for you. “Remembering a past event is a present experience,” as Alan Watts tells us. Is your relationship to past pictures now different than it was at the time that you took them, or can you describe any where that might be the case?

BU: Yes. My relationship with American society — the nature of our culture all through that decade — it was pretty rocky. It had been a bad, hard decade. In fact, two weeks after Martin Luther King’s funeral, I photographed Robert Kennedy’s funeral. I remember marching down the streets in Cicero, New York with the people of color, and people were throwing bricks off of rooftops, trying to hit us on the head. This is not a nice thing to do. It doesn’t make you feel really good about your country.

John Kennedy had been killed, Robert Kennedy had been killed. I saw it in Ethel and Robert’s faces at Martin Luther King’s funeral. I could see that they knew that he was going to be killed. How could he not be killed, and he was! Two weeks later, I photographed his funeral. Woodstock happened, and Woodstock is when American culture turned on a dime. You could see it all around. You could see the way people treated each other. You could see people that were expected to riot, and people were expected to hurt each other, because they were described as wild-assed hippies or whatever they were. They were being really nice to each other. They were taking care of each other. It was raining. It was muddy. There was not a lot of food. But people were really trying to help each other through this event. I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I’m not a religious person at all, but if there had ever been anything that happened in my life that would have made me believe in a higher power, it probably would have been Woodstock and seeing the way the couple in that photo held each other, and how everybody else treated each other. They were really a symbol. They were representative of a whole lot else that was going one. They were just the most visually eloquent example of it.

TM: Your work continues and your relationship to your subjects continues. Where are you at now as a photographer? What is it that you want to document?

BU: I have pictures hanging on my studio wall of an AR-15 I borrowed from a friend. Actually, I wrapped it up in what may even be the same little space blanket I had with me at Woodstock. There it is now holding an AR-15. Standing behind it are a dozen or so grammar school kids — black, white, multi-racial and what have you. I asked them to hold hands as if they were about to be shot. It’s a picture which I call “Targets.” It’s a terrifying and sad, horrible picture to have to look at.

Then there is another one where we already took a picture of a door that says “colored” on it. That was found a block and a half from where I live in the basement of a building that was about to be remodeled.

TM: That was meant for a bathroom or some segregated facility? It still has the word “colored.”

BU: Yes, it has “colored” on it. This is an easy thing to find in the South. Growing up, I would see these doors all the time. I borrowed the door, brought it to my studio, hung a noose over it, hired some black dancers to come and take their clothes off and stand on a little pedestal as if to visually paraphrase what used to happen when they’d get off the slave boats in Charleston or New Orleans to be auctioned off to slave owners. They were told to undress. There they are. It’s a very beautiful but troubling photograph because there they are. I had a friend make a noose to hang over their heads and I call that picture “Heritage,” because that’s the black heritage.

I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth.

TM: Obviously, you put two black people into what is not a comfortable situation. Maybe as dancers, they’re used to being disrobed, but here they are with all of this horrible iconography that still casts a very long shadow over our society. What did they say to you?

BU: Well, I told them the same thing that I told the school kids that came here. I said, “I want to tell the story of violence. I want to tell the story. I want to do a photograph which speaks to the issues of violence in our culture today. I’m asking you to cooperate with me.” They happily agreed, “Absolutely, let us participate in telling the story. We’re honored and happy to do it. Let’s all work together to make this a powerful photograph.”

TM: What have you seen through your lens that gives you hope, because you still travel all over and shoot outside of your studio?

BU: I see in the landscape, I see the joy of the eccentricity of the Southern culture, which gives me great pleasure. Now the South is a very special place. It’s hateful and racist on the one hand, and it’s loving and poetic and eccentric on the other. Those two poles bounce off of each other almost within every block you see in a small town in Southern America.

I love to drive the backroads, the small towns. I find examples of both and then I photograph them and put them in my archive. I put them on my website and show them to museums. Sometimes I’m lucky enough for museums to buy these pictures and put them in their collections, although I was told a really interesting thing by a very good museum curator who lives and works in the South. “You will never sell any of these pictures that deal with racism to a museum in the South. They don’t want to touch it. They don’t want to be known for racism, so you may never, ever have a picture in the permanent collection in a Southern museum that deals with this.” I was recently on a trip across country, and in Austin, Texas, I went to see a museum and they said, “No, that’s not true. We could very well see ourselves buying these photographs for our permanent collection.” They looked favorably upon the box of photographs that I showed them. They said, “We want to keep all of this in mind.” I think there are some Southern museums that would buy them for their collection. So far, that’s been the most optimistic thing I have heard.

TM: You, of course, are undeterred in pursuing the things that you believe need to be documented.

BU: I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth. I’m on this earth to photograph what I see around me, that which I love and that which hates me and that which loves me me back and that which I really dislike seeing. I trace a lot of it these days right back to Donald Trump. How can I not?

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath