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Imagine that

Burk Uzzle's unusual photographs can raise questions in viewers' minds. And a closer look often reveals delightful surprises.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published August 13, 2006


The scene in the photograph is a peaceful countryside. A mother lounges in the foreground while a bucolic lawn slopes gently to the horizon. In the distance is a white frame house.

Then, something startling!

A child's legs splay upward while tumbling into a pool.

Is this comedy or tragedy unfolding?

It calls to mind Bruegel's Fall of Icarus in which a young man tumbles from the sky and drowns in the sea while the rest of the visible world goes calmly about its business.

Which is no surprise. Burk Uzzle, photographer of Legs, is a student of the Old Masters, especially those of the early Renaissance who dazzled with a new sense of drama and use of perspective.

A Family Named Spot, recently published, is a collection of photographs by Uzzle, 67, who lives in St. Petersburg but hits the road as a freelancer for much of the year in search of new subjects for his lens. Like much of his work, these photographs bear the influence of his distinguished career as a photojournalist. Uzzle was hired by Life magazine when he was 23, the youngest contract photographer in its history. He later became president of Magnum, the international photo service. One of his most recognizable images is a photograph he shot during the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 that became a poster and album cover.

But Uzzle's photographs are richer, more nuanced, than straightforward visual reporting. The people and places seem fixed in specificity - that's the journalism - as well as in a timeless canvas that interprets the moment - that's the painterly influence. And they usually demand a second, closer look which is rewarded by delightful surprises.

Consider Legs. Besides the obvious question about the child's situation, there is that boat, its bow visible in the middle right of the photograph. What's it doing parked on what looks like a landlocked field? Is there a lake just beyond the frame? Its presence is a quiet detail, easily missed.

Same thing with the book's cover image, A Family Named Spot. Right off, the photograph elicits a smile: a couple walking a couple of greyhounds, all dressed in Dalmatian T-shirts. So cute!

Who are they? Doesn't matter. Uzzle crops out the owners' heads. Clearly, the important family members are canines, panting in unison, seeming to tolerate their owners' casual grasp on their leashes.

Some of the photographs seem spontaneous though Uzzle says he often will spend hours setting up and waiting for the right shot. That precision is more obvious in Painted Tire and Thunderstorm, in which an old tire is dramatically lit and dominates most of the photograph. In the distance, trees are silhouetted against a stormy sky. The tire's painted treads appear in high relief, looking like bones. And it is a carcass of sorts, obsolete, abandoned and subject to the more enduring punishments of nature than those at human hands.

Uzzle has published several collections of his work, which has been the subject of museum exhibitions. Now that A Family Named Spot is complete, Uzzle is off again, this time to find subjects along the West Coast of the United States that eventually will become a book, too. Those, he says, will be taken in color.

Spot includes a foreword written by his cousin, broadcaster Charlie Rose, and a short story by author Allan Gurganus that was inspired by Uzzle's photographs.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.