The Mother of Alabama Art Photography: Gay Burke’s Legacy Continues

From the February 2019 Desktop News | On any given evening in the last half of the 20th century, Gay Burke’s photography room in Woods Quad could be found full of students, watching and waiting to see her next move.

Her students say she was known for giving constructive criticism in a way that wasn’t harsh, but helpful. She would stay late to help students master a new technique or model to give them a chance to teach one another. To her, it didn’t matter if students were working towards their degree or taking one of her classes for fun: she wanted them to improve. Through years of teaching, she established one of the most respected photography programs in the South, and rightly earned the title of “The Mother of Alabama Art Photography.”

Burke was born in late December of 1946 in Brownwood, Texas. After receiving her undergraduate degree in San Antonio, Burke moved to the University of Florida to study under legendary photographer Jerry Uelsmann. There, she completed her graduate degree and found a love for art photography, using a technique that would become her signature through her career.

“Most of her work was done in the darkroom, which, to me, is really interesting because we’re so used to Photoshop now and the ease that comes with modern-day photo editing software,” Arielle Gray, an art major at UA, said. “Her double exposures were rare for that day-and-age, and she created different realities with them.”

In 1973, Burke joined the UA’s art department, becoming the first female tenured professor in the department’s history. And from there, she built a photography department unlike anything else in Alabama: the first place that photographers could study their craft as an art form, and not simply capturing a moment in time.

“There were places you could go and get photojournalism and maybe a little bit of commercial photography, but there was no place where you could go and study photography as art,” Wayne Sides, a student of Burke’s and a retired professor of photography at the University of North Alabama, said. “She was the mother of Alabama art photography. The program was started by Jim Barnes, but she finished and she improved on it. And she made it what it is today. She turned it into the gem that it is and I can’t think of another legacy like that.”

Burke’s legacy intertwines with those of several other famous southern photographers, touching the lives of everyone from Walker Evans, who became famous for his portraits of rural poverty in the 1930s and was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, to Miller Mobley, a contemporary phenomenon who is also the youngest photographer to shoot the cover of Time magazine. But Sides emphasized that it didn’t matter who you were or what your skill level was: Burke was a mother to all.

“There’s a whole line of people she’s helped over the years,” Sides said. “If you needed work, if you needed money, she’d say ‘I’ll pay you if will come over paint my garage,’ or if you needed a place to stay, she’d say ‘you can stay in the back room.’ And she’d give you plenty of food and help you get back on your feet.”

Burke’s compassion for her students and colleagues created a close-knit family in the photography program that still lasts to this day.

“There were really cool interactions where you got to kind of learn from just from being around other people in the department,” Elliot Knight, executive director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, said. “And there was a real kind of sense of community that became really important beyond just the classroom instruction or the projects and things we worked on. That kind of artistic community was really interesting to me.”

Burke taught 42 years of UA photographers, many of whom would go on to influence their own students. Although she retired from teaching in 2015, UA photography students still feel the impact of her artistic genius and intent to foster a community.

“It’s very inspiring to see a female photographer become so successful in Alabama and in the world at large,” Gray said. “She taught so many successful artists, and it makes me wish I could’ve had the honor to be taught by her.”

Burke passed away on May 1, 2017 in Tuscaloosa. Her obituary in the Tuscaloosa News described her as “kind and fair with a great sense of humor and an unforgettable laugh,” adding that “[she] allowed others to be themselves while always remaining true to herself.” And to her students, this was true in every sense of the word.

In October, UA’s department of art and art history displayed two exhibitions featuring Burke’s work, as well as the work of her students. “Gay Burke: The Mother of Alabama Art Photography” was on display at The Arts Council Gallery and featured 40 of Gay’s pieces— some that had never been shown before. Burke’s students’ work was featured in the exhibit “Butterfly Effect,” on display at The University of Alabama Gallery at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.

In June, the Alabama State Council on the Arts plans to continue celebrating Burke’s legacy with an exhibit that closely mirrors the two in Tuscaloosa. According to Knight, the exhibit will be on display in May and June of this year.