Burk Uzzle: The Actors

By Ruth Schiling

All American. By Burk Uzzle, Aperture, Millerton, NY.
Burk Uzzle is a Magnum photographer whose new book is described as the culmination of “10 years of looking at, and looking for, America.” The result is a work that invites comparison to the whole genre of street photography and more specifically that work which has examined America’s soul by photographing her public façade. There are the requisite parades, bikers, beach scenes, and odd roadside attractions. In style as well as subject matter the work of many others comes to mind — Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and William Klein, to name just a few. The cover design, layout, and text attempt to make the book upbeat and humorous. The text is sprinkled with such words and phrases as “hope,” “exuberance,” “silliness,” and “the great turbulent spirit of America.” In her introduction, Martha Chahroudi likens Uzzle to a modern day Huck Finn on a motorcycle. Uzzle hopes that the book reflects his feelings for the “structure” of America that “evokes a ‘melody’ of movement and collage.” The book designer tries to do this by varying image size and placement. It comes off stilted, though, and certainly doesn’t have the rigor and vitality of Klein’s books. Nor is the printing of the usual Aperture quality. While its metallic feel may match the metallic paint that the parading Mummers wear and the chrome of the bikes, it weighs heavily on other images and contradicts their spirit.
So why should we pay attention to yet another book of American street photographs? Uzzle is a good photographer and there are some strong images. Some of the more interesting ones do resemble collages in that the information lacks spatial clues and the effect is a scene that appears pasted together. Uzzle, more than many of his predecessors, has a good feeling for the theatricality of public America. His people are more often than not in costume, from the Mummers on parade to the Daytona family dressed in matching Mickey Mouse sweat shirts. Martha Chahroudi notes the interesting contrast between Frank’s Americans and Uzzle’s. For her, Frank’s people are “more anonymous, passive, frightened, and defensive,” while Uzzle’s “rarely recede even in their moments of aloneness.” I can’t conclude, as she does, that Uzzle’s Americans possess “hope and exuberance,” but rather, that in the 27 years which separate the two artists’ books. Americans have learned to pose and dress for a presumed camera. I am reminded of Andy Warhol’s “prophecy” that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen seconds. What Uzzle has captured in his book is some of us out there auditioning.