DPP Home Profiles Jerry Uelsmann: The Alchemist

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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"Untitled, 1976." Uelsmann's work is always in black-and-white, and the elements that he uses to construct a photomontage are diverse. Often, he employs natural elements and juxtaposes them with mysterious human forms and dynamic backgrounds to create a dreamlike world of mystery and abstract meaning.
In this way, he's creating his images with three distinctive parts. The first part is his collection of seemingly random items to be used in his images. Next is forming the artwork by assembling ideas and items from his library of found and preconceived pictures. The assembly is where his vision and aesthetics, along with mastery of the alchemy, give the distinctive look to his images. These two parts of Uelsmann's process are not that different from many photographers, but the third part differs from the way many conceive their images.

The third stage is the most interesting part of Uelsmann's approach. While his images can be defined by their symbolism and subconscious overtones, these aren't the critical factors. Then what separates Uelsmann from other artists? He leaves the important part of the functioning of the art to his audience. At a question-and-answer session, when asked what an image meant, Uelsmann said that he doesn't try to answer questions of meaning with his images, but rather asks the audience to help him seek answers. The audience completes the image, not Uelsmann. This is why he doesn't title many of his images. He doesn't want the words in the title to interfere with the audience's experience of his images at any level.

A good example of Uelsmann's approach can be seen in one of his most popular images, "Untitled, 1976." The titling doesn't give the audience any point of view to skew their appreciation and interpretation of the image. The image is of a room with a desk and map stand in the center, with the sky, the sun and clouds replacing the ceiling, and a small figure of a man walking on a book open on the desk. The ambiguous image structure allows the audience to interpret the image based on their backgrounds, knowledge and emotions. Having no title forces the viewer to attend more to the various portions of the image and to engage more highly within their own minds to define meaning of the various parts. One gallery has called the image "Philosopher's Desk." By using this title, the gallery has put a spin on the meaning of the image that Uelsmann may never have intended.

"Journey Into Night, 2006."
Uelsmann isn't certain about the meanings of his art, only the parts included in his images. Throughout the process, this uncertainty pushes him to find the proper combinations to make his art. Though he may end with an image that totally satisfies him, he arrives there through a process of discovery, not by creating images that are finished in his head at the beginning. He utilizes formal concepts as he arranges elements within his images. Because of his mastery of blending images seamlessly into new juxtapositions and photography's acceptance as real by the audience, this adds to the reality that's so important for the surreal images he creates. While his images may seem implausible, the reality created by his craft in the darkroom allows the viewer to see them as potentially real, if unlikely. In his iconic image of a house growing from tree roots, it's clear that Uelsmann's mastery of the way the two images come together allows the audience to interact with the concept of an abandoned and deteriorating house growing from the roots.

In the few cases where Uelsmann has named his images, the title aligns with the image content to lead the viewer to an understanding of the composition. In "Homage to John Muir, 2004," Uelsmann has chosen a background and center of interest that support his view of the importance of Muir to the natural environment. But even in this image, with its prescribed meaning, there's a level of ambiguity. The image consists of a high Sierra lake and a book floating above a semi-submerged rock with an eye. While the wording of the title, the background and the book are recognizable symbols, the floating book and the eye are more ambiguous, leaving some room for the audience to interpret more about the finished piece.


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