Between Worlds: Jerry Uelsmann
Jerry Uelsmann is a creator of worlds. For more than 40 years, he has played the role of both artist and engineer in the darkroom. Once a pioneer, now a modern day master, Uelsmann employs as many as seven enlargers to deftly combine negative after negative into a single dramatic image. “I’m a huge believer in post-visualization”, says Uelsmann, “which is about the willingness of the photographer to revisualize the final image at any point in the photographic process.” Indeed, Uelsmann’s process is more akin to a painter than how most photographers approach making images.
“I feel my creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroom.”-Jerry Uelsmann
Jerry Uelsmann was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1934. He discovered his love for photography while in high school, but it wasn’t until attending the Rochester Institute of Technology where he made the life changing realization that photography could be more than just “assignments.” At the time photography as art had not received a lot of acceptance. Photography was seen as a craft, more of something utilitarian, rather than a fine art form. Uelsmann started the program at RIT as a portrait photographer, but while he was there gradually his vision for his life changed direction. He says he owes that switch to his instructors who would speak about “images that happened when the spirit came down.” He says, “These professors expanded my ideas of what photography could be. I really feel blessed by that because had things gone differently, I could have been a portrait photographer in Detroit.”
Being a portrait photographer was not in the cards for Uelsmann. After going to graduate school at Indiana University he went on to teach photography at the University of Florida. Being the only photographer in the art department there, he was around artists who did not have the luxury of having their images occur in a fraction of a second.They worked with their images over a long period of time, studying and letting the creative process flow. Watching how these artists worked through their pieces to get the finished product caused Uelsmann to rethink his own process regarding photography. He pioneered the concept of post-visualization.
In the 1960’s Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Alfred Stieglitz, among others, set a standard of pre-visualization. Getting everything right in camera, nailing the exposure, knowing what you want before you push the shutter. There are expectations to what the image will be. Pre-visualization can be limiting, however. We can get caught up in how we expect something to look and when it doesn’t happen we can shut down creatively. We can’t move beyond the image we had in mind to begin with and that stops our awareness of other opportunities. Post-visualization encourages photographers to “re-visualize” the final image at any point in the photographic process. It is the creative process that becomes essential.
Uelsmann says, “It is important that we maintain a continual open dialogue with our materials and process; that we are constantly questioning and in turn being questioned. In terms of my own development, I have found the recognition of questions more provocative than the provision of answers. Often, confident that we have the right answers, we fail to ask enough questions, and then our seeming confidence fogs our vision and the inconceivable remains truly unconceived.”
The amazing thing about Uelsmann’s work is the fact that it is all done in the darkroom and not digitally. Uelsmann was a pioneer in compositing images long before Photoshop came along. Using as many as seven enlargers in his darkroom, he loads different negatives into each one and just moves the paper in order to line up what he wants to keep or leave out in the image. He says, “I am sympathetic to the current digital revolution and excited by the visual options created by the computer. However, I feel my creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroom.” He sees the incredible options that Photoshop provides, but “watching that print come up in the developer is magic for me.”
Uelsmann is a great risk-taker. He knows the craft of photography, but does not let it get in the way of what he wants to say with his artwork. Like memorizing the dictionary doesn’t mean you will suddenly start saying profound things, he says having great technical skills will not make you a great artist. What it does do is allow the depth of your work to increase and evolve. As a photographer myself, especially since I work in digital, I tend to compose, shoot, then check for exposure and shoot again. I don’t take a lot of risks in my photography. I think of things I’d like to try, but keep them to myself. There is something to be said for taking the time to really look, to really see what it is that you want and risking failure. Uelsmann says, “I reach stages in the darkroom where I’m just at some crucial point and I don’t know what to do and I will apply a basic Gestalt technique that asks ‘what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? I can waste ten more sheets of paper and a couple of hours. What’s the best thing that can happen? I can astound myself.’ Thinking of that mantra causes me to push further, which is important since many of my lasting images have come from the fringes of my consciousness.” Taking a risk as a photographer really isn’t a risk. All it wastes is time and the result could be something we never even hoped for.
When we stay within our comfort zone we have security. Whether we shoot weddings, portraits, fashion, or landscapes I think most of us tend to do the same thing, take the same path. I know I do. Uelsmann says we may get a sense of security from adhering to a prescribed path, but we cannot just go and make great art. We have to begin with whatever ideas we have and then push them to get into areas where there is some self-doubt and uncertainty and see what happens. He says, “Often good art comes from the fringes by those taking visual risks.”
[UPDATE]: Jerry Uelsmann and his wife Maggie Taylor are the subjects of a fantastic new documentary film called Jerry & Maggie: This Is Not Photography.