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Miki Johnson: When you were 30, your photographs were included in shows at both the George Eastman House and the MoMA. How did that come about? What impact did that have on your career?
Burk Uzzle: I suppose Magnum showed them pictures, as I was never a buddy of those people. It had zero impact on my career or development as a photographer.
MJ: What was your first solo exhibition and how did it happen? What lessons did you learn from it?
BU: The Riverside Museum in NYC worked with Cornell Capa to do a show of my work, and all that effort was a template for what eventually became his now famous “ICP” show. I learned how really great it feels to walk into a museum and see my prints big on a wall, and to offer a certain amount of trust to talented curators who love my work.
MJ: You must have had extensive contact with curators and gallery owners through your work with Magnum. Do you have advice for photographers who want to form relationships with these people?
BU: I left Magnum in 1983, so my contacts have been formed mostly since I left Magnum. I find it difficult to form relationships with museum people, as most of them seem to be dedicated to following the herd instincts of devotion to the latest fad.
On the other hand, the good ones, who think independently, can really change your life by believing in your work, encouraging you to keep on keeping on, and helping you have the confidence to work with the integrity of individuality that important work requires.
You just have to be very patient, find a way to figure out who the worthwhile people are, somehow meet them, and somehow show them work. All this is very different from pursuing “career” instincts.
MJ: How do you approach an art project differently from how you do a documentary one? What skills and styles apply to both styles?
BU: I consider documentary photography, whatever that term means in the world of Photoshop, to be the most subjective form of work. Art photography, for me, means fine work representing the same values of devotion to quality of feeling, seeing, craft, and artistic presentation as documentary work. I just try to do good work that feels true to myself, and don’t pay much attention to categories.
It’s really all the same — be yourself, be as good as you can be. Be honest to yourself and to your subject, respect your subject matter, and pay as little attention as possible to what other people think, or how they want to apply definitions and categories to what they perceive is important in your work. Or, for that matter, what they think the important agendas are in the world.
Some of the greatest work in any field is about the, at first glance, seemingly trivial subject matter. It’s really all about how deep are your feelings.