Burk Uzzle: American Puzzles

Burk Uzzle, Wow Cows, Vermont, 2003. Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery

Burk Uzzle, Wow Cows, Vermont, 2003. Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery

You may be forgiven for not having heard of Burk Uzzle, but if you saw this show of his black-and-white photographs from the 1960s through the 2000s, you won’t have any excuse for forgetting him. Uzzle’s career mirrors that of some of the best-known photographers of his generation, and yet his is not a household name. In 1962, at 23, he became LIFE’s youngest contract photographer. Just five years later, he became a member of Magnum Photos. In the years since, he’s photographed some of the most important events of our time and built up an impressive collection of images that show America in all its splendor and strangeness.

Uzzle displays an intuitive sensitivity to our national incongruities and harmonies. His subjects are classic Americana: beaches, parades, small towns and highways; a mix of the impossibly vast and the deeply local. His perspective combines the best qualities of those who’ve undertaken similar enterprises – the wit of Garry Winogrand, and the stylistic approach of New Topographics photographers like Robert Adams – while maintaining a certain Uzzle-ness that makes him entirely original.

His sheer range of expression is striking. On one hand, there’s the dark irony of Football Team with Smokestacks, a wholesome scene complicated by a looming darkness. On the other, the absurdity of Wow Cows, fake cows standing in a field. Elsewhere, Uzzle’s images are a mix of melancholy, wonder, and pure aesthetic exploration.

It’s hard to explain, at 76, Uzzle’s relative obscurity. Hopefully, shows at the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Nasher Museum of Art next year will put him in his proper place among the greats of American Photography.