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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jerry Uelsmann: The Alchemist

Jerry Uelsmann’s surreal imagery has inspired a generation of digital artists, despite the fact that he’s done almost all of it in a wet darkroom

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Photographer Jerry Uelsmann has been working with image manipulation since the late 1950s, when it was considered to be bad form. He assembles his densely constructed prints from multiple silver-halide negatives, piecing together each aspect in an organic process in which he consciously avoids meaning, the classic workflow of a surrealist. Now in his late 70s, the celebrated photomontage photographer is considered to be one of the forerunners of modern image manipulation, despite continuing to work meticulously in the analog darkroom.

By the time the name Photoshop had become synonymous with photo manipulation, the discussion was that with the adoption of this software technology into the mainstream of photography, it would create thousands of Jerry Uelsmanns. The comment that a piece of technology could replace the personal vision of an artist speaks about a major misunderstanding of Uelsmann's work, as well as an oversimplification of the technology.

"Self-Reflection, 2009."
Because Jerry Uelsmann is a master craftsman of what he calls "alchemy"—silver-halide photography and printing—too often his work has been unfairly defined by technique instead of vision. While Uelsmann employs techniques that are potentially simplified by the use of Photoshop, it has been his mastery of the process, along with a unique vision and an evolving aesthetic, that has made the artwork iconic. For more than a half-century, Uelsmann has shown virtuosity in darkroom techniques that have been mimicked by others using enlargers, as well as Photoshop. But the complex compositing techniques he uses to create his images are the means to an end, not the end in and of itself. In other words, Uelsmann's art is about more than just putting pictures together.

Uelsmann credits early photographers such as Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson as part of his inspiration for his photomontage images. The processes have enabled him to broaden the notion of the limits of a photographic image. Uelsmann revels in being an artist, not just being a photographer.

Beyond tracing his inspirational lineage to 19th-century photographers, he also credits artists such as René Magritte for inspiration that has led him to his personal expressions. Uelsmann has been further influenced by nonvisual arts and philosophy. This complete approach is robust, and it contains the totality of the world around him.
The style is a mixture of playfulness, experimentation and a disregard for the intellectualization of and within his images.
Regardless of history or sources of inspiration, it's personal approach and vision that distinguish an artist from others working in similar ways and within the genre. Uelsmann always has been quite open with this technique, sharing it with others, but still his work separates itself from those who practice similar methods. The style is a mixture of playfulness, experimentation and a disregard for the intellectualization of and within his images. He takes a non-intellectual attitude toward using his camera to collect aspects of his environment that provide him with a base of materials that can be formed into his images. Uelsmann has said, "My initial approach is very nonintellectual. I just can't emphasize that enough."


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