There was a little bit of confusion when I started off my viewings at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina with a screening of F/11 and Be There. I thought it was going to be a short and a feature. But this title of the documentary is advice of legendary still photographer Burk Uzzle, the subject of F/11 and Be There.
You have probably seen the work of Uzzle over the years. He was the youngest photographer to work for Life Magazine when he started in the ’60s at 23. He covered the war in Cambodia, a Klu Klux Klan rally, the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr and Woodstock. The last event might be the place where you’ve seen his work since one of his photos ended up on the cover of the soundtrack.
How did a kid from a small town in North Carolina get to observe and capture so much and more over the decades? Director Jethro Waters (also from North Carolina) finds this out when he grabs his videocamera and follows Burk on two photography assignments. The first is a series of portraits of folks in a rural North Carolina community – a subject close to Burk. We see so much about how Burk works with his subjects. Even as he approaches 80, the photographer do not have a massive team of support personal. He’s moving around equipment all on his own. He doesn’t have 14 assistants racing around positioning the lights. He sets up his own space and takes his time capturing the perfect moment with his subjects. What’s great about the film is that Jethro Waters edits in the photo so we see how Burk’s work pays off. How this intimacy he creates with the subject is brought out in the moment.
Burk is given time to talk about his working methods. His approach to photography as an art does come out as he works his magic in the dark room. He’s willing to admit that he though he knows the science of photography, it’s still just magic to him as he develops the film and makes the images show up on the photographic paper. This is so true if you’ve ever worked in the old “analog” method. At the same time there’s nothing more horrific than developing a roll of film to find everything went to black. It’s a temperamental magic. Now in the digital age, we instantly know if we got the shot.
Burk recounts many of his major assignments. Perhaps the most chilling is his time capturing the KKK cross burning rally back in North Carolina. He encounters an unexpected visitor from his past underneath the white sheets. He contemplates what his future could have been if he didn’t have his passion for photography. Along with the portraits, Burk goes cross country on the side roads in order to capture odd landscapes of America. Jethro Waters follows along to show us how the photographer frames up his views.
F/11 and Be There gives an deep portrait of Burk Uzzle. You get a sense of his life’s story, his photography and what he does to capture those images. It’s a celebration of a man and an appreciation of his work. This is a documentary that ought to be shown in photography class to give students an appreciation and an inspiration of what it takes to go beyond snapshots.
I had a chance to catch up with director Jethro Waters after the screening to talk about F/11 and Be There and his time with Burk Uzzle:
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.