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RiverRun film focuses on N.C. photographer’s 60-year career on the front lines of history

A screen shot from “F/11 and Be There” about Life magazine photographer Burt Uzzle of Wilson, N.C.

RiverRun film focuses on N.C. photographer’s 60-year career on the front lines of history
April 11
01:00 2019

By Judie Holcomb-Pack

Jethro Waters’ film about N.C. photographer Burk Uzzle is about passion, but it also comes from passion.

Waters, who grew up in Vale, near Hickory, has been passionate about photography his whole life. Concerned that he couldn’t make a living with photography, Waters went to UNC-Asheville, where he earned his BA degree in international/global studies. He soon realized that this field of study was the perfect foundation for him to continue developing his passion for photography, which expanded into videography, directing and filmmaking.

He began making narrative shorts and music videos and made his first full documentary about Portugal.

Waters’ short film, “Remains,” will be screened in a museum exhibition about Civil Rights photography in The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C., as well as museums in Montepellier, France, and Johannesburg, South Africa throughout 2019.

RiverRun International Film Festival is screening his documentary, “F/11 and Be There,” on April 13 and 14.

The Chronicle interviewed him by phone early this week at his home in Manhattan where he now lives, to learn about how he connected with Burk Uzzle, who is featured in the documentary.

He related that David Raymond, a friend who is a collector of contemporary and vintage photographic works, met Uzzle at a photography group and was fascinated by the stories he told about his adventures as a Life magazine photographer. Raymond contacted Waters and he was immediately interested in meeting Uzzle, especially since there was a North Carolina connection – Uzzle lives in Wilson. At their first meeting, Waters knew that a documentary about his life would be an interesting project and Raymond joined his project as producer.

Waters and Raymond wanted to show the legacy of Uzzle, starting in the 1950s when he began working at Life magazine. In the film’s trailer, Uzzle said, “Growing up in the South before the age of television being in every home, the only link to the outside that made much difference to me was Life magazine. I knew I wanted to be a Life magazine photographer. So I did. I became a Life magazine photographer when I was 23 years old.” Uzzle is still hard at work at the age of 80, after a nearly 60-year career as a photographer.

Uzzle has witnessed and photographed many historic moments, including Civil Rights marches and Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Uzzle’s photos hang in many art museums, including the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the N.C. Museum of Art, and others. When he was commissioned by the Greenville Museum of Art to create an exhibit of portraits, Uzzle knew he wanted to feature African-Americans of eastern North Carolina, which is depicted in the film.

Waters said that what sets Uzzle apart is the way he prepares before he shoots portraits. He meets his subject and spends time getting to know them personally. In the film, Uzzel says, “To make good photographs, the first thing you have to know is who are you, what defines you and your values as a person. How do you take that and relate it to a subject? If I am to give myself to conveying them, that implies respect.”

Waters wants his documentary to show the behind-the-scenes work that goes into Uzzle’s photography. He hopes his film captures the legacy of someone who is dedicated to the ideals of equality.

He hopes that the audience leaves with a sense of the perseverance that Uzzle has shown during his career as a Life photographer, being on the front lines of history. He also hopes that it will spark conversations about justice and equality, the theme that runs throughout the story of Burk Uzzle.

“F/11 and Be There” is being screened on Saturday, April 13, at 5 p.m. at SECCA and Sunday, April 14, at 2:30 p.m. at the UNC School of the Arts Babcock Theatre in the ACE Theatre complex. For ticket information or more information about RiverRun, visit www.riverrunfilm.com. For more information about “F/11 and Be There,” visit www.f11andbethere.com.

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