Jerry Uelsmann is a creative genius, but it takes technical prowess to translate what his mind’s eye sees to a tangible medium. His composite images are all the more impressive with the realization that the surreal visions were created in an analog world. The Detroit-born, Gainesville-based photographer has influenced countless other visual artists through his teaching, exhibitions and books. His second look back, Uelsmann Untitled: A Retrospective, published by the University Press of Florida, reconfirms his extraordinary previsualization abilities combined with his mastery of traditional darkroom techniques.
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.
Jerry Uelsmann: I work on a regular basis and constantly explore the options that are available to me in the darkroom. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t just make good or great images. It’s like saying, “We just have a few minutes to talk right now, let’s be profound.” It doesn’t work that way. I find by working on a regular basis it gives me the ideas, the base to think of the next image. I have all these resources from negatives that I’ve taken over many years, as well as recent shoots such as the one I did in Central Park while I was in New York for the AIPAD show. I’ve been dealing a lot with those negatives. I try and keep fresh. If I were younger, I would be working digitally, as the technology has so improved in terms of print quality and archival-ness, but I’m totally committed to the darkroom, and I still love the magic of watching a print appear in the developer.
DPP: Are there some darkroom supplies that are tough to find these days?
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.
DPP: How do you do what you do in the darkroom from a technical standpoint?
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.
DPP: Are you consciously trying to convey certain messages with your images?
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.
In my new book, there’s a sequence that involves boats. That goes back to a lecture I was giving at Boston University. Minor White had died a few years earlier. I showed an image that had a lone boat in it. I had mentioned Minor’s name on the previous slide. A man came up to me afterwards and said, “I was at Minor’s bedside when he died and his last spoken words were, ‘There’s a small boat waiting for me.’” Once the guy said that, I thought, “Oh, my God.” I came back to Gainesville and made the image that’s been widely reproduced of the boat with a cloudsphere. For me, the boat has become a metaphor for a spiritual journey.
DPP: Did you study with Minor White?
Uelsmann: I studied with him when I was an undergraduate at the Rochester Institute of Technology back in the 1950s. One of Minor’s influential concepts was that images had relationships to each other. So, if you
bear that in mind as you look through my new retrospective book, you can see where there’s often a simpatico feeling between images that are laid out opposite each other. One can see, especially in the boat section, how one image flows from one to the other.
DPP: Was there anyone doing this multiple enlarger type of work before you?
Uelsmann: Combination printing techniques go back to the 19th century, but they weren’t using multiple enlargers. There were folks in the 1960s and ’70s that were experimenting with multiple exposures in the camera, but I really don’t know of anyone that was using multiple enlargers in the darkroom. There was a show a few years ago at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York titled “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” that traced the evolution of manipulation in photography. They produced a wonderful book/catalog for the exhibit.
DPP: What type of enlargers are you using?
Uelsmann: Saunders LPL 4550XL enlargers. They have variable contrast heads. They give me the control I need because I frequently do contrast dodging. In other words, I can print a scene that’s basically medium/high contrast, but then I can turn my enlarger down to a zero-grade paper to burn in the sky for a more subtle effect.
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.
Uelsmann: That’s right. For example, in my image of the house with the tree roots, the tree roots would be in one enlarger, the building in another, then I’m blending them together. I align everything by doing a crude drawing on an 11×14 sheet of paper, basically, on the back of an old print. All my prints initially are done on 11×14 paper and, then, if I really like them, I’ll readjust and make larger prints. In the case of the tree building, I wanted to know where the edge of the tree was and if I could make it line up with the edge of the building. Then I’m dodging the one side so it gradually blends into the other. On my website in the press section, there are links to videos of me working in the darkroom.
DPP: What camera equipment are you working with to create the negatives you’re working with?
Uelsmann: For years I used the Bronica, the poor man’s Hasselblad. They had very good lenses on them. As the cameras got heavier, I switched over and basically shot with the Mamiya 7. It’s a rangefinder, so it’s a little bit lighter. The Mamiya 7 has a super-wide-angle lens. I also have a Plaubel Makina. I want the largest-size negative using roll film. I use T-MAX 400.
DPP: You taught photography for many years. Would you encourage students of photography these days to get into the darkroom?
Uelsmann: There are people who use the computer to write their essays and there are people who still use a yellow pad and a pencil. They both can write excellent essays, stories or whatever. The process is the means by which you complete the image, but you don’t want it to be the end. There was a point at which the emphasis was on the Zone System that was all so technical. So you had this precise full tonal scale image, but what was the subject matter? It’s a cat or a sunset. So what? I’m committed to the darkroom, but I believe that if I had been 20 years younger when Photoshop came out with its visual options, I might be sitting in front of a computer rather than standing in front of an enlarger.
To see more of Jerry Uelsmann’s work, visit his website at uelsmann.net.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Uelsmann pushes the boundaries of his full body of work to create new and constantly evolving images. He’s uncompromising in his approach. While he can tolerate uncertainty in the process of creating final images, he can’t surrender the art itself. This aesthetic approach leads Uelsmann to broad experimentation with various potential elements. He doesn’t settle on a final composition until it satisfies his first audience: himself. Since the mid-20th century until today, Uelsmann has created iconic images within this continuously evolving style. While we can see relationships to his earlier work, there are still new departures in his subjects, techniques and the emotional content.
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.