Documentaries about photographers seem to grow on trees these days. Burk Uzzle, the subject of this unusually distinctive one, doesn’t have the name recognition of Bill Cunningham or Jay Maisel, two lensmen highlighted in recent features, but he should.
The title, “F11 and Be There,” is Uzzle’s mantra, particularly in his photojournalistic pursuits. F11 is a camera setting regarded as an all-purpose one for capturing moments on the fly. The directive “be there,” derived from Henri Cartier-Bresson, encourages photographers to place themselves in the action.
Over a nearly 60-year career, Uzzle, now 81, got to document many fascinating and tragic events and places including the motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, King’s funeral and Woodstock. (His photo of a young man and woman embracing with a blanket wrapped around them provided the cover image for the documentary’s soundtrack album.)
Much of the movie shows Uzzle in the here and now, working in his North Carolina studio. He’s completing a commission: portraits of prominent African-Americans in his area. One is of a lively woman who poses in several elaborate hats. There are gospel singers, and there’s a gang member seemingly torn between street life and new fatherhood. Uzzle, who’s white, makes them all intimate collaborators.
The film is as beautifully composed as Uzzle’s pictures. The director Jethro Waters also shot the movie, a subtle feast of light and color. The animated sections illustrating Uzzle’s past, by Cable Hardin, consist of white lines drawn against a deep gray background, and work beautifully. The music by Natalie Prass and Eric Slick is propulsive. This is a short film, and yes, when Uzzle isn’t speaking of specifics, he does fall back on platitudes about the greatness of photography — but he’s still very much worth knowing. And this movie is a good introduction.