Forty Years of Proof Sheets

Former Students Thank Professor Gay Burke

Gay Burke. Photo by Rachel Dobson
Gay Burke in her Woods Hall office. Photo by Rachel Dobson

[From The Loupe – Spring 2013] — On NPR recently, 20-somethings were waxing nostalgic for “old-fashioned” film cameras, a technology they associate with an “earlier era.” But they may not feel so old-fashioned to UA photography alumni. We asked some of them to tell us about the professor who first turned them on to the once-new art form, and who created a community that continues to this day.

In 1973, Gay Burke was hired to teach photography in the UA art department, when it was still suspect as a fine art medium. Burke, who had come from the University of Florida where she had studied under renowned photographer and photomontage innovator Jerry Uelsmann, became the first female tenured in UA’s male-dominated art department. Her black and white imagery revealed unexpected, often fantastical, juxtapositions. An early artist statement suggests some of what she passed on to her students:

While I enjoy the sheer beauty of the photographic print and the darkroom techniques that bring this into being, it is the process of discovery that excites me most. I believe that photography is not only a process of self-exploration and self-expression; it is magic–pure and simple.

Suddenly, it is 2013, and forty years have passed. Gay Burke continues to teach darkroom photography at UA as her “biblical” anniversary looms. We invited former students to send in their memories of Burke and the response was overwhelming and moving.

Burke’s quiet manner belies the danger of exploring new inner (and outer) worlds. But the range of her influence reveals the depth of her “process of discovery” and her ability to convey that magic to those around her, often to students’ surprise at what they learn about themselves. Her mischievous smile, her attentiveness, her insistence on self-examination and the way she has fostered a community of photographers are common experiences in several of these stories. “She changed my life” is a recurring theme, from art majors and non-traditional students alike. As Wayne Sides (one of UA’s earliest New College majors) argues convincingly, Gay Burke is “the mother of Alabama photography.” And her legacy continues… RD

Jerry Uelsmann, Gay Burke, ca.1971. Image courtesy of the artist.
Photo of Gay Burke by her professor, Jerry Uelsmann, ca.1971. Image courtesy of the artist.


Gay Burke will always hold a special place in my life. Gay was not just a professor to me, she was like a second mother. I know that she had a huge hand in “raising” me to be what I am today and I will be forever grateful and thankful to her for that! She was firm in her teaching yet always there whenever I had a question or didn‘t quite grasp how to conquer a technical difficulty or a visual concept. There were many times when we didn’t see eye-to-eye on things, but she never gave up on me. She kept on supporting me while always pushing me to grow and consider other possibilities or ideas. Gay was great about keeping me in check, always allowing me to voice my opinion and then giving her opinion for me to think about. When you talk with Gay you have her full attention. She is a professor who puts her students first and foremost. She doesn’t stand up and lecture on her subject, expecting it all to sink into her students’ heads. Gay realizes that some students learn by seeing and she is always willing to “roll up her sleeves” and demonstrate how to do something. That made a huge impression on me and that is something that I always remember, to teach by showing! Gay also taught me to relax, to allow for humor and not be scared to laugh at myself. Most importantly though, Gay taught me to always listen to the opinions of others before making my final decision, that many times there are no good or bad photographs, just poor composition. Thank you Gay, thank you so much! Johnny Goodwin, MA 1999 (photography), BA 1997 (History and Studio Art)


Gay Burke put up with us geezers wanting to be photographers. I worked at Bryce Hospital where Tom Waters said “you need to talk to Gay.” And she let me into the evening class after I had checked out in the darkroom with a bit of beginning knowledge from her daytime class. And yes, these classes changed my life. I never knew you could photograph at a place called Ma’Cille’s Museum of Miscellanea.Kathleen Fetters, former photography student


Jenny Fine with "Flat Granny" at the Wiregrass Museum of Art, 2015
Jenny Fine with her performance installation, “Flat Granny” at the Wiregrass Museum of Art

She was my first teacher when it comes to art and photography…I owe the foundation of my studio practice to Gay Burke whose teaching emerges from a willing spirit of generosity and a contagious belief in the magic of photography. It is this magic that drove us to the darkroom where we students camped out for hours talking and toiling to the hum of the exhaust fan. It was in Gay’s class, in her darkroom, where I found the thing I wanted to be most in life: an artist. It seemed no idea was too small and that each pursuit was worth following…To me the mark of a great teacher is in one’s ability to foster a community, which strives for excellence. We all wanted to be better, not only for ourselves, but for Gay, because she expected it. Gay’s teaching and commitment to her students often extended beyond the bounds of time and space. Two years after graduation, I decided to apply to graduate school and I fondly and with deep appreciation remember the numerous Saturdays spent in her home talking over my applications. She never tired of me, but helped me…I feel no exaggeration when I say that you, Gay Burke, are truly a life-changing teacher and my life is better for having been your student. For your time, your commitment, and your magic, I am eternally grateful. Jenny Fine, BFA 2006


I graduated from the U of A in 1978 with a MFA in painting. I believe it was the summer of ‘77 when I took a photography course taught by David Kaminsky and Gay Burke….he was just there for the summer. So Gay was my first introduction to the magic of the darkroom. I learned from Gay that a teacher should be there to facilitate but otherwise just let the students go. Students always have to find their own way! It was a great experience which I hope I was able to replicate somewhat in the 15 years I taught darkroom photography at a high school here in Virginia. I have loved every bit of it! Thanks, Gay, for heading me down that road! Photography remains an important part of my life. Wow, that was 35 years ago?  — Rhonda Roebuck, MFA 1978


She wanted us to make clear negatives without dust spots. Mine had ALOT of dust spots. In the next roll of film I shot, I put on a black beret and poured salt on it. She opened up a lot of our “lenses” showing us how to see with and through the “frame.” Keyser Wilson, MFA 1978


Gay Burke changed my life. She opened my eyes and challenged my mind. She was always there to give support and a good kick in the butt when necessary! When I’m teaching my students, I sometimes catch myself saying “Do more…do better!” and I swear it sounds just like her voice! Jeffery Byrd, BFA 1987

Jeffery Byrd, "Symphony #4 (Beautiful Notes for SLC)," photo by Kristina Lenzi.
Performance and video artist Jeffery Byrd with his “Symphony #4 (Beautiful Notes for SLC),” photo by Kristina Lenzi.


I took classes with Gay from fall 1995 to spring 2002 and I was her TA from fall 1998 to spring 2001. One funny memory from the classroom: I was her TA for the Intro to Photo class. Students were working on an assignment, printing in the darkroom, looking at their contact sheets. A student came up to us after staring at the assignment sheet for a while. He asked, “Can we do the assignments creatively?” We both paused. I didn’t know how to answer this funny question—in my mind I was thinking, “Duh –yes, this is an art class!” Gay answered, “Please.” What sounded like a broken record from Gay back then — “You should shoot more”– is what I am constantly saying to my students now. —Wanrudee Buranakorn, MFA 2002 (photography)


What I learned from Gay was the importance of figuring out what I needed to say in my work and learning the best ways to express that. And I learned that any limits I thought I had were self-imposed. Gay was so good about holding group critiques — I learned a lot from other students’ opinions, too. And she exposed us to the history of photography. That was invaluable. She was an excellent teacher. I loved her informality and ability to organize us varied students into a community of folks who learned to learn from each other. Leslie Burns, MFA 1978


Gay has a timeless approach to photography that has inspired me since I first began working with her as an undergraduate in around 1987. Although I was a psych major, I took a couple of classes with her in the art department, and decided then that I would be a photographer. Gay would listen while I talked through my ideas and allow me to explore them, then, in her quiet but matter-of-fact manner, help me navigate the excess and get to the point. Years later Gay accepted me into the grad program as a non-traditional student for the MA and then the MFA. Lending her counsel we worked through multiple issues, personal and creative, from the bench outside the photo area on the third floor of Woods Hall.

I am so grateful to be a part of Gay’s ongoing legacy in her photo family tree, and hope to extend that influence through my own students. She has mentored me through graduate school, shared advice on teaching, and instilled a passion for photography in me and many of her other students. To this day I look to her for artistic guidance, and genuinely cherish our friendship. Thank you, Gay. Much love. Sarah Cusimano Miles, MFA 2010


Gay, thank you for including me so many years ago in the vivid photographic community that you were in the process of creating at The University of Alabama.

You were a new faculty member, following Jim Barnes, who was the initial faculty member in the new MFA degree program in photography. Jim’s training at the University of Iowa’s MFA program and yours at the University of Florida’s MFA program brought photography into the realm of the arts at U of A. Previously the only available photography classes were in the Journalism Department, where I took my first classes. I gained technical knowledge there, but was starved for input in the visual arts world of photography. My classes with Jim Barnes provided what I craved, a consideration of using the camera as a viable way to make my own work.

I had graduated with an MFA in Photography, among the first few such graduates from U of A, and was working on campus in a state agency. After years of being in classes, suddenly I was adrift without a community of people who were engaged in photography as a medium of self-expression.

You invited me and Wayne Sides to sit in on meetings of group discussion on photography at your home. You invited us on photo field trips, such as to Ma’Cille’s. You generously included us in a viable group whose purpose was to explore the “how” of using this medium to make work.

Thank you for your generosity and for all that you have contributed over many decades to the Alabama photographic community! Rita DeWitt, BFA 1970, MFA 1972


Gay was such a powerful influence on the course that my life and work has taken and I will forever be grateful to her.  I know that to say the one class that I had with Gay Burke was life-changing sounds a little dramatic, but it’s true. For the first time, I realized that photographers could be artists and that the camera and film were just vehicles for ideas. I started seeing new potential in everything. Gay’s office was like a library and she always kept her door open. We would sit in there while our prints washed and look through her books and discover artists and soak up influence. Gay introduced me to a new way of seeing. Laura Shill, BA 2003 (Journalism)


Gay’s passion and love for the medium of photography have inspired many who have studied with her. I feel fortunate to have had Gay as a mentor. I am deeply grateful to her for all the encouragement and support. Barbara Lee Black, MFA 2011


Gay Burke’s influence on me has been incalculable. I started out in photography a shy sophomore in 2005. Though I had been taking snapshots all my life, I had no experience with serious photography. Yet I knew it was what I wanted to do.

Gay was more than just a teacher to me; she was a mentor. She not only explained the photographic process, but taught me to see things differently, to experience the world in a photographic way and translate that experience into a physical image. I can remember well the many times I sat on that bench outside the photo lab, contact sheets in hand, eagerly showing Gay what I had been working on. I’d tell her what my plans were for my work. She would chuckle at my ideas sometimes, but she never discouraged me.

Nearly eight years later, I’m a working photographer in New York City. I learned from various other teachers since my time at UA, but none of them has had the impact on my work that Gay Burke has. I use the skills she taught me every time I pick up my camera.Matt Minor, BA 2008


In 1989…I received a call from my old bottle-digging psychiatrist-buddy and photographer. Dr. Jim Morris got right to the point, “You need a hobby.” He prescribed that I join him in Gay Burke’s Thursday evening black and white photography class.

I showed up at a following class to check it out. Dr. Jim met me at the door and introduced me to Barbara Lee Black, whose first question made me feel right at home, “Is that your mother who has the museum at Gordo?” Then I met a host of other nice folks. It turned out that Gay Burke (whom I had known for years) had made a practice of accompanying her classes to my mother’s museum to photograph the weirdness. Also in that first class was Kathy Fetters.

I sold a binding press for $250, bought a 35 mm camera, and signed up for an audit. I am not really claustrophobic, but I do need more elbow room than Gay provided for double-left-handed people to download bulk film from canister to cartridge.

Being smarter than your average Alabama redneck, and being fully funded as a college assistant professor, I learned to save a lot of film by paying other students to download my film. I then made the terrifying discovery that my long-suffered darkroom chemical allergy was about to reclaim its former territory, so I paid to have my negatives and prints done as well. When I realized that my continuing to force a total lack of photographic skills onto the photographic world was causing more harm than good, I quietly laid aside my camera.

Gay Burke recognized that I was capable of somehow plucking a positive viewpoint from the most mundane photograph and, being the super-human being that she is, allowed me to continue to participate in classroom critiques. Then, with that certain twinkle and grin, would ask, “Well, Glenn. When are you going to bring some work?” Glenn House, Sr., BFA 1957, MLS 1978, Ed.S. 1983; Assistant Professor Emeritus, Book Arts.


The first photograph ever taken was from a Paris window, of a man getting his shoes shined, 186 years ago! For the past 40, Gay Burke has been teaching the fine art of photography at The University of Alabama. I was fortunate to have been in her class during the 5th year of her tenure. From my recollection, her work at that time fell somewhere between the subject genre of Diane Arbus and the craftsmanship of Ansel Adams. During that year, I walked many a mile throughout the cities of Tuscaloosa & Birmingham, with my Minolta 35mm, photographing primarily 19th-century building facades & focusing on unusual surfaces & textures. A wonderful inspiration to me, congratulations and best wishes always, dear Gay!Murray Cahill, BFA 1978


This story is reprinted from The Loupe, spring 2013