DPP: Since the last time DPP sat down with you, you’ve created a new body of work, released a retrospective and received a lifetime achievement award in fine-art photography at the prestigious Lucie Awards in New York.
Uelsmann: It’s not too difficult; they’re just at a higher price. B&H is the big supplier, and the interesting thing is the myth that’s out there that the older papers were better. It’s not true. There are wonderful papers today. I’m currently using Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. It’s exquisite. I’m using the basic Dektol developer and rapid fix, all the basic chemicals are still available. One of the ironies in terms of the art market is that there’s a great emphasis on vintage prints. The interesting thing is with everybody going digital, who wants a vintage digital print? Back in the day, they wouldn’t last—let them be hit by sun for a while and they were gone. I like my vintage prints and I think they’re good quality, but I don’t think they’re in any way superior to the print quality I’m getting now.
Uelsmann: I have seven enlargers. Usually, the image begins with two or three of them. By looking at contact sheets, I find a point of departure. It’s like when you’re writing something, you have to put down that first sentence to see where it’s going to go, and sometimes it doesn’t go very far and sometimes it leads to other thoughts and ideas. I’m constantly addressing the images coming up in the developer. I’m initially testing for correct exposure and burning and dodging options. Usually, in that process, I’m thinking about other variations or elements that can be added. Fairly frequently, I’ll leave all the negatives in the enlargers, then the next day, when I look at the print, I’ll think of another option, either a better way of printing the image or an additional element that could be added. There are times when I’m exploring variations of a particular image for three or four days. It’s not like you have a meter you could hold up to the print, and it says, “Oh, it registered up in the art area. This is art!” At the time I’m working on these, my conscious mind is addressing all the technical aspects, and on another level, there’s an image in front of me that’s evoking an emotional response. My conscious part has to remember I do this dodging at this enlarger, that dodging at that one, and the different times. I enjoy that part of the process. It’s like resolving some complex problem and working it out technically. But then there’s a point at which you do have to address it visually. Often, you’re dealing with a sort of cognitive dissidence in that if you’ve invested all day or several days working on something, you’re thinking, “This has to be good. I’ve spent so much time on it.” But as time passes, you do get a greater perspective on which images seem to be resolved better than others.
Uelsmann: People ask me, “What does this image mean?” I really like the fact that the viewer completes the image, that they find some personal basis that they can either pass over or they can relate to it. I don’t have a hidden agenda that they have to have a specific response to. On the other hand, I have a lot of images that deal with relationships. Some deal with aging. I’m 81 years old now. Whatever the images are, I just try to work authentically. Rarely does the image come completely together when I’m looking at contact sheets. In some cases, I’m in a sense making the same image over the last 60 years. It’s not like I’m going to grow a new head, but as I grow older, I have a broader base of life experiences that feed into the potential content of the images.
DPP: Did you study with Minor White?
DPP: Was there anyone doing this multiple enlarger type of work before you?
DPP: What type of enlargers are you using?
DPP: So you start with your paper in an easel under one enlarger, then, after the exposure, take it to the next enlarger, then down the line.
DPP: What camera equipment are you working with to create the negatives you’re working with?
DPP: You taught photography for many years. Would you encourage students of photography these days to get into the darkroom?
To see more of Jerry Uelsmann’s work, visit his website at uelsmann.net.
Jerry Uelsmann: The AlchemistJerry 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
By Glenn Rand, Photography By Jerry Uelsmann
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.
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."
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.
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.
Uelsmann is unapologetic about his approach. He challenges viewers psychologically and emotionally. He also challenges the critics because his images aren't easy to write about. The images don't rely on art theory; they reside in the surrealism that they create, and then each invites the viewers to interpret and enjoy their own interpretations. This flies in the face of postmodernism, which has dominated much of the photographic milieu for many years. Since Uelsmann's images vary in meaning and emotion from viewer to viewer, they can't be confined to a simplified genre nor can they be fully intellectualized through commentary.
He doesn't settle on a final composition until it satisfies his first audience: himself.Uelsmann steadfastly remains committed to silver-halide imagery despite the fact that the uninitiated may assume that it's all digital. Resist the urge to label his process as anachronistic. Like so many great artists, Uelsmann is a master craftsman who has a profound connection to his medium. As noted at the outset of this article, you can't define the artist by his technique, and perhaps the greatest compliment to Uelsmann's vision and his importance to concepts using digital technology is that as an alchemist working with silver-based images, his work has been included in the exhibition Digital Darkroom at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles (December 17, 2011-May 30, 2012).
You can see more of Jerry Uelsmann's work at www.uelsmann.net.