Jerry Uelsmann: On the Fringes of Understanding
Words: Richard Pitnick
Few artists have done more to explore the aesthetic, creative and technical boundaries of the photographic medium than Jerry Uelsmann. In this era of facile digital sleight-of-hand, it can be easy to underestimate Uelsmann’s remarkable mastery of craft. A true darkroom alchemist, he combines light, chemistry and the base metal of silver to conjure marvelous dreamscapes rich in symbolic and psychological meaning.
A pioneer of collage and multiple imaging decades before the advent of Photoshop, Uelsmann has produced flawlessly realized and executed images working with multiple enlargers, negatives and an array of highly-refined masking, diffusion, burning and dodging techniques.
Drawn to the freedom engaged in by other artists to produce their own realities, and describing his photography as a form of visual myth-making, Uelsmann uses the camera to record images that form the basis of a highly personalized and deeply felt visual syntax and vocabulary. Out of this grammar Uelsmann has created a language and world of dreams that draw upon specific iconic motifs, elemental natural forms, and psychological insights into human memory, dreams and consciousness.
Born and raised in inner city Detroit in 1934, Uelsmann took up photography as a hobby while in high school, and began working part time as a photo assistant for a commercial studio and wedding photographer. He later enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology intending to become a portrait photographer. Along with such teachers as Beaumont Newhall, Minor White and Ralph Hattersley, and fellow students Bruce Davidson, Pete Turner, Carl Chiarenza and Peter Bunnell — all of whom went on to important and influential careers as either photographers or educators — Uelsmann discovered and embraced the broader potential of the medium as a means of creative self-expression.
“We had a critical mass for open-ended thinking and discussion about photography,” he recalls. “These individuals expanded my ideas about what photography could be, and I really feel blessed by that because had things gone differently, I could have been a portrait photographer in Detroit.”
Upon graduating with his BFA from RIT in 1957, Uelsmann attended Indiana University, and at the suggestion of Henry Holmes Smith, decided to pursue an MFA at a time when photography still wasn’t fully considered an art form. Uelsmann took numerous art history classes at IU, through which he was introduced to surrealists like René Magritte, Max Ernst and Man Ray. His affinity for their work was immediate and enduring.
Although Uelsmann began experimenting with his singular mode of photography in the late ’50s, it was after graduating from Indiana University in 1960 and embarking upon a teaching career at the University of Florida that his experimentation really took off. His achievements in the succeeding decades have securely ensconced him in the pantheon of great photographers. His work is found in the permanent collections of the Chicago Art Institute; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the George Eastman House. He has published nine monographs on his work, and been the subject of more than 100 international exhibitions.
Uelsmann had his first solo show at MOMA in 1967, and is currently the subject of two major retrospective shows. “The Mind’s Eye,” featuring approximately 90 images (including early documentary images dating from the mid-’50s), opens at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts in February 2012 after having debuted this summer at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where Uelsmann taught photography for close to 40 years.
Running through December 24 at the Center For Photographic Art in Carmel is, “Dances with Negatives,” featuring images that highlight the artist’s longtime connection to the West Coast and such creative California colleagues as Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Ruth Bernhard and Imogen Cunningham.
It is with thoughts of his past, present and future that Uelsmann, now in his late 70s, spoke with B&W+COLOR about his art, his photographic legacy, and the restless creativity that drives him to photograph and devote hours in the sanctuary and laboratory of the darkroom.
B&W+COLOR: You once described your creative process as a search for “…a reality that transcends surface reality.” Can you elaborate a little on the process by which you realize your images?
Uelsmann: There is a lot of conceptually based art, particularly today, that begins with a particular theory, [from] which the individual then makes the images to illustrate. It’s like an assignment, where everything is all planned and it’s just a matter of follow through and doing the work. My approach is a lot less intellectual and premeditated. I begin by building a vocabulary based on things that I encounter or photograph specifically for use in my darkroom. The better images occur when you’re moving to the fringes of your own understanding, and it’s when you trust what’s happening at a non-intellectual, pre-conscious level that you can produce work that later resonates, often in a way that you can’t exactly articulate.
B&W+COLOR: Did your approach to image making and the use of collage speak to an inherent limitation you saw in still photography as an art form, or was it just a matter of finding the tools and techniques to express your vision?
Uelsmann: It was a combination of those things. Photography was always more camera- than darkroom-oriented. It is one thing to celebrate the landscape, but to get beyond that requires other techniques. There was a time when I was a grad student at RIT and under the influence somewhat of Minor White that I would find myself walking around to photograph and trying to find the quintessential thing happening in front of the camera. What would happen was I would intellectualize and talk myself out of taking the photograph. If you can get to a point where you respond emotionally with your camera, there’s a whole world to encounter. There’s a lot of source material once you have the freedom of not having to complete an image at the camera.
Realizing I had further options and could compose my images in the darkroom, I could respond with greater freedom and authenticity. When I first tried things I didn’t worry if I had two or three good prints. I was exploring a phenomenon and the ability to express an idea at a pre-conscious level. What starts as a technical exploration lends itself to how the technique functions in terms of ideas and feeling, and because of the work I do in the darkroom I feel my work has a psychological dimension that couldn’t have occurred otherwise.
B&W+COLOR: To what degree did the whole zeitgeist of the ’60s and the interest in psychedelics, alternative realities and modes of consciousness influence your work?
Uelsmann: I have a great fondness for the ’60s. I was influenced more in terms of the broader culture at the time, and the positive support and attitude toward the arts from colleagues at the university. For a long time I was the only photography teacher in the art department at the University of Florida, so when we talked about images and ideas we weren’t focused on photography. The more I experimented the more support I got from friends, faculty and colleagues, more so than from the galleries.
B&W+COLOR: It seems obvious given the nature of your photography to ask about your thoughts on digital imaging as it relates to your working technique specifically and the impact on your work generally.
Uelsmann: My creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroom. Basically, I’ve been in the darkroom for 60 years, and although I see the incredible options digital provides, the bottom line is [that] the technique has to fit with the ideas and images. All my work is on film, and the darkroom has been the environment in which I create my work. If I was 20 years younger I would work digitally, but I love the ambience of the darkroom and the fluidity of my working process.
The digital thing is a true phenomenon and I think it has generated a much broader audience for my work. The awareness of what can be achieved with the computer and the acceptance of composited imagery has probably helped people relate better to my images. It’s been amazing for me to see the extent to which my photographs travel and appeal to many different people. Now there are new audiences for my work.
B&W+COLOR: How has your technique and vision evolved over the years?
Uelsmann: What I try to emphasize beyond technique is creating images that resonate. In my eyes, my images have changed in that they have a more spiritual and mystical quality in recent years. Everything happens so intuitively. Some days I will look at things and realize I am reinterpreting myself or being influenced by things I have done in the past. On other days I get excited because things are coming out differently than I expected, in which case I will run with it. All of my images are part of my visual legacy, and as I have grown I have more life experiences that feed into my consciousness and permit a broader range of things to occur.
Fifteen years ago when I made an image I would make just a few prints and stop. Now, more and more I realize that when I work in the darkroom to create an image, I will never print that image again, so I make as many copies as I can tolerate — which is usually about 10 or 12. I still love being in the darkroom exploring visual options. I feel I am a better printer now than I was years ago. The visual options are greater than they have ever been and I still discover things I haven’t thought of before.
B&W+COLOR: From your perspective as a decades-long exhibiting artist and educator, what do you see as the major changes and developments in fine art photography over the past five decades?
Uelsmann: When I step back and look at the broad picture, the main thing that has happened to photography in the last 60 to 70 years is that it has become part of the bigger umbrella of art. So much of what is being done today in the fine art field is photographically or digitally produced. Photography is not considered a separate medium anymore. I think this is a positive thing in that today people don’t have any “media prejudice” or bias. When I started, people questioned if my work was really even photography, it was so different than the Group f/64 approach.
B&W+COLOR: How would you evaluate or characterize the art market in fine art photography as it relates specifically to you and your work?
Uelsmann: There was no list of people wanting to show my work in the early years, and many of the initial reactions were, “It’s very, very interesting, but it’s not photography.” While I’m in a weak position to complain, I am frustrated by the current art scene, which is very conceptually based as well as based on what is fashionable. The interface between making art and the commercial world is never pretty, in my opinion. Dealers want to promote limited editions or the whole vintage thing. While I understand what they are doing has a financial basis, that, to me, is a false way of creating value. I figure I’m the only guy that’s making my prints. Once I go to the great darkroom in the sky, whatever prints exist, that’s it.
B&W+COLOR: Looking back over your career, does anything stand out as particularly special or gratifying?
Uelsmann: In retrospect, I feel very blessed in that I intersected at key times in my life with major teachers like Beaumont Newhall, Minor White and Henry Holmes Smith, all of whom truly challenged me in positive ways.
B&W+COLOR: How do you see your influence in terms of the history and development of fine art photography in the last half of the 20th century?
Uelsmann: Duane Michals, Robert Heinecken and I were among the forefront of photographers who challenged the accepted aesthetics back in the ’60s and ’70s and created a new paradigm of what photography could be. However, history is made up of those things you choose to remember, and what has happened now is that my work has been written out of a lot of the history books. When you go to New York and see a show supposedly representing American photography in the ’70s, you always see Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and sometimes Garry Winogrand, but you seldom see Duane Michals, Lucas Samaras, Heinecken or me.
B&W+COLOR: Have you given any thought to what you want to do with your extensive archive?
Uelsmann: I am hoping to place my archive with an institution that will preserve my work for other generations of students, scholars and artists to see. In addition to my images, there are all the contact sheets, which are really the primary source material, or the starting point that I work from. I suppose some day someone might find it interesting to see the way that I photographed through these contact sheets, and to then see the finished images made from the various parts.
For more images, news, publications and galleries that represent Jerry Uelsmann, please visit: www.uelsmann.net.