The Digital Journalist
American Idyll

by Peter Howe

June 2006

We live in an age of bumper-sticker patriotism in the United States, full of empty declarations like "The Power of Pride" and "United We Stand." We slap them on the back of our cars or wear them on our tee shirts, and they give us comfortable, feel-good satisfaction, and a sense that we belong. In the end, however, they don't help us understand our country, or appreciate it. They are simple, emotional shortcuts that marginally relate to one aspect of this complex and intriguing land.

Speedo. Florida, 1999

Burk Uzzle
For a more perceptive and profound patriotism immerse yourself in Burk Uzzle's latest book, A Family Named Spot. Here you will find some of the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies that make this country great, all displayed unabashedly and without apology or sentimentality. They are also portrayed without disdain but with great affection. On the lid of his camera case Uzzle has inscribed the words "Celebrate, don't incriminate," which is an indication of his affinity with his subjects, whether they are people or landscapes. It is the natural affinity of an artist who has stayed close to his roots emotionally and intellectually. These roots are essentially Southern, and even the photographs that he takes north of the Mason-Dixon line take on a Southern disposition. In a recent interview he described it thus, "I try to photograph the people that I am of, basic middle-class people, small towns, small roads. I just like being around plain people; I like them, and get along well with them and I spend time with them when I take the pictures. I just kind of prowl around and do my trolling on little back roads. The stuff I find seems to be everywhere." The stuff he finds is an America of unashamed individualists, often oppressed, but always surviving with a dignity that he relishes. He reveals their rugged characteristics through multiple layers that he leaves the viewer to peel back one after the other.

His way of looking at his world and the way that he captures it was influenced in no small part by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who advised him early in his career to look at the work of the Quattrocentro painters. What an investigation of their efforts taught him was to compose not just from left to right, but from back to front, working the picture in multiple planes, and often narrating several smaller stories within the overall image. It is a feat that he finds easier to achieve through the optical viewfinder of a Leica, or the larger formats of the Hasselblad and view camera, the latter being the equipment that he favors in his present work.

Main Street Skin Caboose. Daytona Beach, Florida, 1995

Burk Uzzle
An outstanding example of this multi-layered image is one called "Main Street Skin Caboose," taken in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1995. The dominant feature of the photograph is the rear end of a young woman, amply revealed through the Stars and Stripes-thronged bikini that she's wearing. The more you look at the picture the more of its secrets you uncover. The stars of the bikini play off the flag on the tee shirt of a passing middle-aged man. There are three generations of females represented. On the right, a young girl sneaks a glance at the naked cheeks of the young woman, maybe envisioning her future, while seeking the protection of a man whose tattooed arm can be seen to her right. On the far left of the picture, the third generation is embodied in the hand and worried face of a much older woman, whose expression seems to indicate that the passage of time is not an altogether pleasant experience. But we're not finished there. In front of the bikini wearer there is yet another, slightly older woman who is so integrated into the younger that she seems to be a part of her, and becomes a generational bridge to the woman on the left. Through its complexity the picture becomes a poem about womanhood in the U.S.A. -- not all womanhood, but the hopes, aspirations and realities of the women in Uzzle's world. He says of this image, "The picture is working on so many planes, and I sat there and watched all of those things coming together. I saw her standing there and I said, 'Well, I'm just going to sit on the curb and wait until the right configuration of elements puts itself together that makes this little thing happen.'"

He is fond of quoting Charles Harbutt's saying, "I try to let the pictures take me rather than me take the pictures." It's probably more accurate to substitute the word "find" for the word "take" because Uzzle goes to great lengths to take the picture once it finds him. He roams the back roads, never flying whenever he can drive to a destination, and often factoring in, at his own expense, several days to arrive at a location for the few annual reports that he will undertake each year in order to sustain his wandering ways. The strange and wonderful sights that he finds are usually not available to those who ply the interstate, but on the road less traveled "the stuff just kind of pops up at me." He relies on his intuition when he arrives somewhere. "There's a feeling I will have or not have about a place. I'll come into a small town, and if it seems interesting and it's a nice time of day, and the light's nice then I'll just start driving up and down the side roads. It might take me an hour and a half to get to the other side of a small town because I'll go down every little street. I find an awful lot of stuff by just being stubbornly thorough in what I'm looking at."

Once the picture has found him he will go through the elaborate process of capturing it on film. If this involves people, and many of his photographs don't, he will solicit their cooperation. He has found that the longer he takes to set up the picture, and the more elaborate that set up is, the more ready his subjects are to collaborate with him. This is yet another reason to work on the larger-format cameras mounted on a tripod, often on the roof of his van. They seem to realize that the trouble that he takes is an indication of how seriously he takes his calling. Although he is serious about his photographs, most of them are infused with a wonderfully gentle and affectionate humor that is in no way sardonic. Here too there is collaboration, as if the subjects are saying, "Okay, this may be silly, but it's part of me, and without it I would be someone else." The chairs on the porch of a simple house are full of stuffed toys being watched through the window by the couple that has put them there; a woman showing the androgyny of old age poses her head in the top of a Superman cutout, her spectacles a reflection of those on the Clark Kent silhouette behind her.

House With Water View. Virginia, 1997

Burk Uzzle
Even Uzzle's landscapes are funny. A small reproduction of Michelangelo's "David" stands under the oil tank of a house in Tampa, warily eyeing the toadstool, rabbit and gargoyle sculptures that are his neighbors; what appears for all intents and purposes to be a Southern graveyard in Plant City, Fla., with its Spanish Moss-festooned trees giving shade to the graves below, turns out to be a dumping ground for old washing machines. He also has that wonderful ability that he shares with people like Walker Evans to imbue inanimate objects with the life and character of their human owners. Literally in the backyard of a house in Virginia, there is an enormous water tower that dwarfs the tiny white dwelling, and yet there is a sense of defiance in the way it stands out against the tower. It is easy to believe that those who live there share the same rebellious attitude.

Humor is incredibly hard to convey in photography, as anyone who has had to judge that category in a photo contest will confirm, and Uzzle is one of the very few who do it successfully. He attributes this to his habit of looking in what he terms the wrong places.

"I'll look at something and what's behind it, or round to the side of it rather than just lining things up in a logical fashion. I'll step to the other side; it comes very naturally for me to do that. I don't really think it out at the time I'm doing it." He goes on to say, "You can't force humor; the minute it starts happening like that it becomes a corny, poor, crude joke. Jokes are really crude in photography so you just have to kind of let things happen in a very sly way. Elliot [Erwitt] is so good at being very cagey with humor." Much of what works about the humor in Uzzle's photographs depends not on what the pictures tell you but what they keep to themselves. What on earth are those grandiose columns doing in front of a doublewide, not to mention the blank grave markers? And just why is there an anti-aircraft gun at the end of a row of mailboxes? The answers to these puzzles lie in our imagination and are therefore probably much more amusing than the mundane real-life explanations.

Family Named Spot. Daytona Beach, Florida, 1997

Burk Uzzle
The America that A Family Named Spot reveals to us is one that seems blissfully unaware of Red States and Blue States, pro-life, pro-choice and gay marriage conflicts that have so fractured this country in recent years. Uzzle delights in portraying the basic (not family) values of his native land – fortitude, courage, creativity and originality being just some. He also captures some of the child-like qualities of much that takes place here, and he finds it delightful. This is how he describes the Americans he portrays: "They're survivors of the act of having climbed out on a limb with themselves. They've survived in a very special way; they've transcended the act of survival a bit. They've survived but they've done something a little more with it." It is where he does his best work, and where he feels most at home. "I am very much a devotee of America. I don't consider myself a member of any particular way of thinking; I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I don't wave flags in the air, but at the same time the country means a lot to me and its base values mean a lot to me. I don't work that well out of the country. There's a look about it, an energy about it, the graphics that come from the architecture, that you don't really find in Europe, or at least you didn't used to. I'm just so to the bone an American product."

He didn't know what to call the book until his editor and publisher, Garrett White, suggested that they use the title of one of the pictures. The photograph shows the lower halves of a man and woman, each of whom is holding a greyhound. All four are wearing clothing in the pattern of a Dalmatian's spots, weird enough for human beings, but doubly so for greyhounds. Imagine Uzzle's delight when as he says, "You know those people and their dogs came to the opening of the show at the Southeast Museum of Photography. They came in their polka dots, in their same tee shirts and they were just great, and they walked around with their dogs and it was wonderful."

In a time when it has often been a challenge to be a proud American it is refreshing to have a photographer who can remind you that there are any number of people down the back roads and byways of this vast and complex land who are indeed wonderful.

[Burk Uzzle's book, "A Family Named Spot," can be ordered online at or Barnes & Noble, The book, and others by Five Ties Publishing , are distributed to the trade through Consortium Book Sales and Distribution: Toll-free number: 800-283-3572.]

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor