The Digital Journalist

Bill Pierce - Nuts & Bolts

Burk Uzzle's Letter

What follows, is, in my mind, the single most intelligent statement concerning the single most important issue for photojournalists. It is a letter by Burk Uzzle to Sarah Harbutt at Newsweek magazine. When you finish the letter, you will know a little about Burk's accomplishments as a photojournalist and even more about his wisdom, thoughtfulness and courtesy. I'll add a few thoughts of my own about Burk after the letter.


Sarah Harbutt
Director of Photography
Newsweek Magazine

Dear Sarah:

Last week you did me the honor of having one of your picture editors call on me for a very important assignment on death row, and I really wanted to do it. First, because it was you.

Secondly, I have already spent a week living in a prison on death row - a long time ago for the old Life Magazine. When that story ran it got so much attention that the governor of Illinois commuted the sentence of my subject to life - proof that photojournalism can really make a difference. I really wanted to have another go at that subject matter for you.

You're in a very important place in our world now, and you must know how proud I am of you.

When I was young Magnum photographer, I had the most wonderful of times living just down the street from one of my best friends, and your father, Magnum photographer Charles Harbutt. He went on to be a president of Magnum, and has had a life of great distinction. Well, Charlie and I have both long since left Magnum, have had our long lives in photography. And now you, that little girl Sarah, who played football with my kids in Brooklyn, is in one of the most important jobs in my world. Please forgive the sentiment, but It's a feeling that gives me great pleasure in getting older.

Even before you were old enough to play ball with us, however, my relationship with Newsweek had already started. Among other things, I had done the Newsweek cover when Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Now this is the funny part - in those days I was making as much from Newsweek as they want to pay me now, in a whole new century.

Trouble is, in those days myself and Charlie and all the other young photographers could more or less get by with a Leica and a loincloth. Now that loincloth (which was never that becoming) has turned into sixty thousand dollars worth of gear and way more overhead. I used to run five miles a day to stay in shape. Now I run five miles a day to stay ahead of the sheriff. (The loincloth still fits, but I don't get it out much anymore.)

It's a strange time. Much of the business is about celebrities and making big deals and eloquent pictures of milk on faces and stuff like that. Now, while all that's fine with me, there are still some really talented photographers around who have wanted to have a different kind of life quite apart from the world of celebrities, to grow as people from their experiences out there in that "other" world, and to turn it all into fine, serious work that will actually make the world a better place.

The group that has not been so much about making deals are the photographers who have historically wound up on your pages; they have brought the world to your readers.

In a way, that brings us to one of photography's dirty little secrets. A lot of photographers are not very good at business. And it's hard, especially when you're young and hungry and need a few bucks and a few credit lines to get started, to stop and think about the business ramifications of it all. But boy, do we photographers need to get better, and fast. We've got to start defending ourselves.

That brings us into the era of downsizing and screwing the help and eliminating the benefits and making the bottom line all that counts.

The paycheck for the talents, which have to be considerable to even get your attention, are not enough to support life. Those day rates need to come up - a lot!

Those pictures that make you and your magazine look good are made with lights and lenses that cost a fortune - used by people with children that need health insurance that costs a fortune, and all for, get this, day rates that are declining at Newsweek.

So, circumstances that really trouble me led to my turning down that Newsweek assignment last week. Over money. Over a grossly unfair day rate. (and Newsweek is not the only culprit)

Personally, it made me feel really terrible, and angry.

Terrible, because it was you, I know you to be an exceptional person and picture editor. We had a great relationship when you were at the New York Sunday Times Magazine. I know how hard you try, and how good you are, and how deeply you care about things. And boy, have you paid your dues. You richly deserve to be where you are.

Angry, because of all the stuff that's going on in our world today that has put me into a position of turning down an important assignment because of money. We're having to lose sight of the stuff that really counts in life, being forced to decline meaningful assignments out of a seething, internal outrage at being treated unfairly.

It's now come to the point where I personally believe I'm being had. It's hard for me to look at what's happening and not conclude that your bosses have decided to systematically screw the photographers. What is the value standard that is at work here? How can this not lead to a progressively more shallow magazine? How can I want to go the extra mile for such people?

I just don't want to go along with it any more. I want to be paid fairly for my work. Just as I bring honor to your pages by investing my talents, and experience, and caring - I feel it is only right that you should fairly honor my abilities and commitment to fine work.

And I really don't like having to conclude that management people, thinking only with their calculators, are taking advantage of the vulnerability of young, naive photographers that have not figured out that they and their careers are being sold down the river.

Let's all get through this bad time, and start growing again.

Hang in there Sarah, you can make a difference in a lot of lives.


Burk Uzzle


I once wrote in jest that the Burk Uzzle resume would simply state, "ads, annuals and editorial illustration beyond belief, a whole lot of exhibits and editorial work that is only eclipsed by his personal work. He is also better dressed and more suave than most bikers." Actually, that only touches the surface, but it is true.

In the "really trivial" department, he is more responsible than any other photographer for my occasionally taking a good picture. Once we were taking pictures of each other. We swapped cameras so we would have pictures of ourselves in our own cameras.

I was a young professional. I never used a normal lens; that was for amateurs. The wider or the longer, the better. And if that wasn't enough, I put prisms, colored filters and any other weird thing I could think of in front of the lens. When I raised Burk's camera to my eyes, I said, "What is this lens?" "It's a fifty." he said.

And with that one phrase this very good photographer taught me that photography wasn't about being cute, clever, different. It was about what was in front of the lens and whether the photographer had the skill to pass it on to the readers.

What he has said to all of us in his letter to Sarah Harbutt, and it is a letter to all involved in photojournalism, from photographer to publisher, is support the photographers who are capable of this. Many good photographers have moved on to do good work in other arenas and be well rewarded for it. But the readers deserve having good pictures of important issues as well as flash-for-cash of some put-upon celebrity. And it really doesn't cost that much.

By the way, if you can find a copy, read the comments in the New York Times, Monday, March 26 edition that deals with Burk's letter and this topic.

Bill Pierce

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