"It is not (it seems to me) by painting that photography touches art, but by theater," Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. In the book, the French theorist investigates the relatively young medium by mulling why certain individual images fascinate him.
One image at the back of the Burk Uzzle retrospective at Raleigh's Flanders Gallery through Nov. 29 would likely have been explored in Barthes' book. And its complex, theatrical power makes it worth a special trip to camp out in front of for a half hour, pondering where America is and where you are in it.
The name Burk Uzzle might not ring a bell, but you've likely seen his photographic work. You know the official Woodstock album cover, with a couple embracing, wrapped in a dirty blanket? Uzzle, a Raleigh native, shot that.
Although his Woodstock work is not in the Flanders show, iconic images of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral procession are. Uzzle followed King's casket from Memphis to Atlanta for Life magazine, which had hired him at age 23—their youngest-ever camera documentarian. His time at Life overlapped the last third of Gordon Parks' two decades there, and their photographic eyes changed in parallel ways after they both left the magazine in 1968.
Balancing seeing and making in each image, Uzzle's funerary photographs are as thorough as they are moving. He captures Coretta Scott King, holding herself together for the cameras while also betraying a faint air of exasperation about their intrusion. But the most amazing images of King's procession are the street scenes, in which the individual emotions of onlookers emerge from the spectacle of the event. Many of Uzzle's images weren't printed and shown until last year, when gallery director Cynthia Whalen at the Arts Council of Wilson—where Uzzle now lives—suggested a show.
A series of recent, large-scale prints of burned books hangs in another part of the gallery. Titled after phrases still legible through the char, the photographs combine the randomness of the fire's effect with Uzzle's composition and lighting to form a meditation on age and death. But there's something about the literal austerity of the King series on the opposite wall that makes aesthetic reveling in the burned-book images a bit creepy.
Although large for a gallery, Flanders isn't big enough to comprehensively reflect upon a photographer who's been shooting for more than a half-century, as Uzzle has. Consequently the overall show jumps around. I kept double-checking the wall tags to make sure I was still looking at the work of the same photographer. But the exhibition is a wonderful dip into Uzzle's work.
The pay-homage image, titled "Red, White, and Blue" (2007), is at the back of the gallery and is part of Uzzle's "Just Add Water" series. A quintessentially American landscape photograph, it features an Exxon station and self-storage sheds in the foreground, nestled into a razed, ruined hill topped by splayed, orphaned pines, power lines, a highway-visible Exxon sign and Bernard Coffindaffer's semi-ubiquitous trio of crosses.
Visually stratified, the photograph lacks a central component or hierarchy. The red metal overhang that keeps the rain off while you pump gas serves as the image's equator. But the overhang is so visually substantial that it reads as a stratum in its own right. There are six layers in all, from bottom to top: gas station tarmac; blue, square self-storage garage doors set into a white building; a swatch of the sheer, strip-mined wall of the hill, complete with dirt digger claw marks; the red overhang, its underside barely visible from the camera's perspective; the scrubby hilltop with its ferrous erosion, tufts of weeds, pines, power lines and crosses; and the sky with an Exxon sign on spindly posts right up against the top of the image.
Compositionally, this appears to be kind of a bad photograph, with that red interruption across it. But then that denies any reading of the image as having a subject—it's not a photograph of a gas station or hill or some nameable noun in the image. It's a tableaux, one as conceptual as it is geographical.
Aesthetically, the badness of the photograph implicates its significance over its appearance. It's not a surface or even an image. It's a site, and it prompts us to become psychic archaeologists.
Coffindaffer's crosses, which the coal-washing millionaire compulsively erected all across the country at the command of a spirit that appeared to him after open-heart surgery in 1982, are dwarfed at the top of the image by the electrical lines and especially the Exxon sign. The middle, higher cross almost appears as part of the oil company sign's support. Conflating petroleum and Christianity, the fossil fuels pumped below replace resurrection. The other appearance of the corporate logo at the opposite bottom corner creates a strong diagonal line across the entire image, as if a brand could unify a natural landscape drained of its profitable resources and abandoned. The blank faces of the grave-like storage sheds bear witness, gushing an exhausted emptiness into the lower half of the photograph.
Everything below the red line is dead. The only living things are above it. The remaining foliage on the hill reads as a ruined paradise beneath a gorgeous sky.
As time passes, everything dies. What's alive at any moment lives on top of that, cramming it down and extracting whatever resources it can until it, too, dies and gets crammed down. It's a desperate narrative arc, and it always ends at a lower point than where it started.
But in this image, people only go to the underworld. We gas up and bury our unwanted stuff. We don't climb the hill to look at the sky or reinvest our icons with meaning. We probably couldn't climb the hill even if we wanted to. Rather, we huddle under the overhang in fluorescent light and then scuttle back out onto the road, the living souls of lifeless car-creatures fuelled by the refined essence of what we'll eventually become.
If the "Occupy" meme has prompted introspection into your country and your own identification with/ against it, then Uzzle's image is a better lens than any protest picture on a Facebook page. Grab your keys, top off the tank and drive to Flanders to see it.