Jerry Uelsmann, now retired from the University of Florida in Gainesville, was the lone photographer among the art faculty when he first started his teaching career in 1960. Today this master of contemporary photography reflects that Florida may have been the only university in the nation to actually include photography as part of its fine art program.
“Certainly it was the only school in the South,” Uelsmann says. “For a period of 15 years, I was the only photographer on the art faculty at Florida, but my friends in the other media were all very supportive.
“When the printmakers and painters looked at (my photographs) they just addressed them as images,” he continues. “They thought they were interesting. In contrast, the comment I often got when I went to New York (in the 1960s) was ‘These are interesting, but they’re not photography.’ The irony for me was, I bought everything I used at the camera store, I spent all this time in the darkroom — what did you want to call it? They had a prescribed notion of what photographs were supposed to look like, and mine didn’t fit into that.”
Some five decades years after his work was pronounced as “not photography,” Uelsmann is being celebrated as a darkroom magician, a pioneer of experimental darkroom techniques, in fact.
In recognition of his witty, dreamlike, mysterious, and provocative works, the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown presents “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photographs by Jerry Uelsmann,” from Saturday, January 19, through Sunday, April 28. The museum will be showing nearly 100 iconic photographs from Uelsmann’s career, in a major retrospective organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
“The Mind’s Eye” presents works drawn from the artist’s personal archive of vintage materials and, in addition to photographic prints, includes a selection of three-dimensional photographic sculptures, films, artist’s books, albums, and work prints to give viewers first-hand insight into Uelsmann’s creative process and expressive range.
Uelsmann’s photographs involve multiple, seemingly unrelated negatives, developed as a single print, a highly technical process that might resonate with printmakers. Drawing from a “library” of negatives, he has an idea as to how the image might look when done, when the different parts of the puzzle are put together.
However, Uelsmann is noted for his “in-process discovery,” in other words, if a photograph goes down an unplanned road during its creation, and the image becomes surprising to the image-maker, all the better.
Take “Apocalypse II” (1967) for example: Uelsmann has used a mirror-image of a large tree with bare branches and has made it so it look like it’s growing out of the ocean, with people in silhouette standing on the shoreline. Cupped hands hold a rippled body of water (“Untitled 2003”), and a formal library has clouds for the ceiling, as a tiny figure walks up the incline of the reading table (“Untitled 1976”).
Uelsmann has about eight or nine developers in his darkroom, and often they are all going at once. No question he is still totally committed to film and the darkroom.
“If I had been 20 years younger, I would have embraced PhotoShop,” he says, speaking by phone from his home in Gainesville. “It’s part of my creative process. It remains magic to me, watching things coming up in the developer.”
Born in Detroit on June 11,1934, Uelsmann says he lived in the real, inner city of Detroit, riding the street cars around town, playing in the narrow neighborhood alleys.
His father was an independent grocer with a store, and, beginning around the age of nine, young Jerry would run grocery deliveries around the neighborhood, an activity he says gave him a strong work ethic.
His mother worked part-time in the store, but she also doted on Uelsmann and his brother and encouraged their artistic aspirations. Both brothers took piano lessons, but Jerry leaned more and more toward visual art –– especially drawing — and was soon taking student courses at the Art Institute of Detroit.
Uelsmann received his B.F.A. degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1957, followed by his M.S. and M.F.A at Indiana University in 1960. That same year he began teaching photography at the University of Florida, which he notes was his first job offer.
“I must have sent out 100 letters of application, and so many schools responded by saying ‘photography is not an art form, and we’ve forwarded your application to the journalism department,’” Uelsmann recalls.
The year 1967 was a good one for Uelsmann. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship and also had his first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, personally invited by John Szarkowski, the museum’s director of photography from 1962 to 1991. In fact, Uelsmann had called the photography department at MoMA out of the blue, and Szarkowski answered the phone.
“When we spoke, Szarkowski told me he had seen some of my works and said, ‘If you’re coming to New York, why don’t you bring them with you?’” Uelsmann says. “Indeed, he looked at my work and offered me a show, and that opened all kinds of doors. It was like being blessed by the Pope — it gave credibility to what I was doing.”
He recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of Florida, and now, he jokes, he can call himself “Dr. Jerry.”
Uelsmann lives with his wife of 23 years, artist Maggie Taylor. His son from an earlier marriage, Andrew, 32, also resides in Gainesville.
For a glimpse into Uelsmann and Taylor’s work, as well as the couple’s artistic relationship, see the documentary film “Jerry & Maggie: This is Not Photography,” on the online learning company Lynda.com. It’s a beautifully crafted film that touches on their work as well as how they get away from it all, for example, kayaking through Florida’s waterways, even encountering an alligator or two.
“It works out well, the fact that we’re both involved in the arts,” he says. “Although she’s all-digital and I’m all-analog, we’re sympathetic.”
The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1972, Uelsmann has exhibited works in more than 100 individual shows in the United States and abroad over the past 40 years.
His photographs are in the permanent collections of many museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modem Art in New York City, the National Museum of American Art in Washington, and museums in Paris, London, and Japan.
Two of Uelsmann’s images are on view in the exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, through January 27. The show will then travel to the National Gallery in Washington, February 17 through May 5.
In addition, on June 8, the Museum of Photography in Seoul, South Korea, is opening a show in celebration of Uelsmann’s 80th birthday. “I’m not actually 80 until June 11, 2014, but they count birthdays earlier in Korea,” he says.
Listed in his biographical materials are a couple of late 1960/early 1970-era photos of Uelsmann in his warren-like darkroom, with a giant speaker mounted high on the wall — the bygone kind with a heavy hardwood frame. He’s apparently known for his love of recorded music, turned up nice and loud while he’s working.
“I’d love to tell people that I listen to Bach while I work, but I love the blues,” he says. “What I’ve found in recent years is that as my images get more technically complex, I have to turn the music off. But when the prints are washing, I blast it again. I’ve read books about ‘play,’ and I’m involved in that kind of play where you have ideas, but you’re open to possibilities, waiting to see what else is happening. You’re inventing a reality, but at the same time, you’re going through mental gymnastics and you get sucked in. You can’t explain why you’re creating this image, you’re midwifing it into creation. I’ve read the same thing about fiction writers: sometimes the character runs away and becomes its own thing.”
“You have your visual vocabulary, but at the same time, better images happen when you move to the fringes of your consciousness,” Uelsmann adds. “I like images that challenge my sense of reality. It sustains a mystery for me for years to come.”
The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photographs by Jerry Uelsmann, James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Steet, Doylestown, Saturday, January 19 through Sunday, April 28. $7.50 to $15. www.michenerartmuseum.org or 215 340-9800.