Jerry Uelsmann

Uelsmann's work has been exhibited in more than 100 individual shows and reside in the permanent collections of museums worldwide.

Books published include Jerry N Uelsmann (Aperture, 1970); The Cricticism of Photography as Art: The Photographs of Jerry Uelsmann (University of Florida Press 1970); Jerry Uelsmann: Silver Meditations (Morgan & Morgan, 1975); Jerry N Uelsmann: Photography from 1975-79 (Columbia College, 1980); Jerry N Uelsmann - Twenty Five Years: A Retrospective (New York Graphic Society, 1982); Uelsmann: Process and Perception (University Presses of Florida, 1985); Photosynthesis (University Press of Florida, 1992); Uelsmann Yosemite (University Press of Florida, 1996); Referencing Art ( Nazraeli Press, 2004); and Other Realities (Bulfinch, 2005).

Find out more about Jerry Uelsmann on his web site – www.uelsmann.net

This conversation was first seen in the November/December, 1997 issue of View Camera magazine. Find out more about View Camera magazine at www.viewcamera.com


John Paul Caponigro There is the problematic notion that photography represents an objective view of reality, a literal truth. Representation has certainly been with us since the earliest images were made but it has never been a greater preoccupation than in recent years. And there is another dominant impulse in art, conjuring up an internal, some would say subjective, truth. This impulse is hardly new either. Even within our relatively recent western tradition there are figures like Sassetta, Bosch, Gruenwald, Blake. This realm has long been the province of painters, though certainly not exclusively. Photography, after a few initial fits and starts, tried to separate itself as an art form by becoming everything painting was not. One of the things I think is fascinating about your work is your marriage of a painterly sensibility with photographic vision, dealing simultaneously with the literal and the subjective, the descriptive and the expressive.

Jerry Uelsmann I wrote a paper years ago called Post-Visualization. At the time, it was controversial. When I think back upon it, it was simply due to the fact that I was the only photographer in an art department situation. All the other media had in process discovery. Photography is the exception. Who's going to begin with a fully conceived canvas? There is a dialog with materials. I think it was osmosis. Being around people who constantly dealt with those issues, they showed me sketches, we'd have coffee together, we talked all the time, it made me think why should this primary moment of truth just have to occur when you clicked the shutter? When you're raised in the purist tradition, as I was, photographically speaking, you're taught that this is what photography does. You make this. It has to be on one negative.

JPC Of course that's been challenged since the beginning of photography (Le Gray, Hill & Adamson, Robinson, Rejlander, Man Ray, Citroen, Ernst, Hoch, Heartfield, Uelsmann). Essentially photography has been a history of "light drawing."

JU There are consciously multiply exposed daguerreotypes - for instance eight views of Edinborough that were done on one plate. I have maintained that Henry Smith, who I studied with, a brilliant guy, a bit crazy, but at Indiana University he maintained that you could have this whole history of photography that would show a manipulative tradition from day one. But because we had so few historians and the first one of any significance was Beaumont they developed this bias. When people are critical of Newhall I'm always bothered. Nothing's wrong with Newhall. We just needed ten more people dealing with all these other issues. He didn't want to address the Bauhaus or all kinds of things that were going on in the art world where there was overlap. And so I think there is a tradition for it. It's just that most people think in terms of the veracity which now is being challenged by the computer. That's the one factor that probably is going to change in the next century. People will begin to be a bit more suspicious. I've always felt that was a plus in my work because the inherent believability is such, in most people, that when they see a photograph of mine there's a dissonance - it's reality but it's not. It creates a kind of tension that I think can suck people into it. I'm always bothered if the first response to the image is, "How did he do it?" I don't mind that being a question, even the second response, but I want that first response to be something like, "God.""Wow.""Disturbing." or "That's my dream." Whatever, but let it be some sort of emotional response rather than something about the craft or technique.

JPC What about the computer?

JU Oh the computer!

JPC You're not using the computer now.

JU Well I think I'm living out the answer. I would honestly say if I felt I had more time I would be working on the computer. But right now part of the reason that I'm not is that my career is so established that I have to spend time reprinting things that people want I want to keep that body of work going. I was introduced to what you can do on the computer. Now when I'm looking at contact sheets occasionally things will come up that I know I can't do in the darkroom but I could do on the computer. So if certain conditions change, I'll retire from teaching probably in one more year, that will give me a little more time, I might start exploring it. I have a fantasy about doing a whole set of Iris prints, I really like the way Iris prints look, that will be based on images I've done that I would make improvements to that I know I can't do in the darkroom. Subtle things.

I certainly don't feel threatened by the computer. It's a tool. It's another way of making marks. Good creative artists will come along. We're in this phase now where a lot of people are overwhelmed by it, feel it's it, feel it's the one thing. It's going to be with us for a long time, but it's going to find it's place. I figured out pretty early, even in the darkroom, having too many options is counter productive to the creative process. The computer is the king of too many options.

JPC Exactly. There is always the danger of doing too much. Knowing when to stop is important.

JU I had learned this by the time that I worked on the Adobe project.

Watching Maggie (Taylor ... his wife) work, it's not quicker, from my point of view.

JPC With the right system it could be. And it certainly would be when you went to make a second print. But I often find most of the time is spent in developing an image not executing it. People can't process information as fast as computers, they take time to make decisions but unlike computers they can actually make them.

JU I have a system that's working for me, in terms of involvement with the imagery.

JPC Absolutely. It's been working for how many years?

JU For a long time, since the early sixties.

And you know, enlargers have never crashed on me. What can I say? There are some plusses.

I never thought so much about cost. And as you mentioned, even Maggie, doing color prints in the darkroom, that's much less costly than getting the Iris prints done. Now that may change with time but that will be a limiting factor for some people.

JPC It is right now.

JU The other thing is the change. These computers have a life expectancy of three years before something comes along that's quite a bit better.

Even very early in photography Henry Smith used to get down on everybody's case about this. I say, "Look if you're comfortable with what you've working with don't change." I see so many people when a new film comes out, finer grain, or paper, whiter whites and blacker blacks, they just keep going on. When you're unhappy with your results then you should explore these other options. In photography, let alone in computers, it's so easy to get caught up.

JPC A.D.Coleman wrote in the introduction to your book Photosynthesis that you had prepared the fertile soil for future computer hybridizations. How do you feel about that?

JU Well that's all after the fact.

JPC You're not the first photomonteur but you are one of the most influential ones.

The number of hybridized photographic images has increased dramatically since the computer has become widely available. You've been employing this aesthetic longer than almost anyone alive, though you were not the first to employ it, you are certainly photography's most prominent practitioner of the genre, so much so that when other artist's employ the method today other people's responses are very often, "That looks like a Uelsmann." I wondered what your response was to that kind of thinking.

JU Well, I must confess to some extent I'm bothered by that. I've had very few students use my techniques because they instantly receive that comment. And it's usually a pejorative comment. What bothers me about that is, if you know enough about photography, there isn't a single image that someone could show you that you couldn't begin by saying, "Well that looks like a ... Caponigro or Friedlander or whatever." You know? And I think that what people fail to realize. Many of these images that I see that involve manipulation are incredibly different than my own, in terms of the content and all kinds of psychological and visual innuendoes that they have, but on some surface level they may have some technical similarity. It's not fair to categorically make that kind of statement. I guess I'm more bothered by the fact that usually people who hear it hear it as a negative term. I'm happy to have people use my techniques. I encourage it. I think that as more and more manipulated work gets out there it's going to be less of a factor. And it should be less of a factor. They should just address the work. And then if someone says, "You're on the same wavelength as ..." You know there are other ways of saying that and that's fine. I would much prefer a more open attitude toward all this.

It is ironic that the computer has generated an audience for my work that wasn't there before. I couldn't have conceived of that. Initially when the computer was first presented to me as a phenomena I saw it as somewhat of a threat. But that quickly dissolved. I've never been secretive about my techniques anyway. I show people how to do it. The technique part of it is not hard. It's coming up with the imagery that is hard. I've always been leery of artists who have some secret thing that no one else can have. In the long run that's not going to fly. These are things that just happen to you. It's like success, it's never been a goal. It happens to you. It's a journey you find yourself on. The phenomenon of the computer has become gradually more and more integrated into my life. It was just a serendipitous thing when Adobe wanted to do the project. Maggie's more involved with it than I. The schools are into it now.

JPC Early on in your career there was practically no one doing the kind of image hybridization that you were doing. I think you even mentioned that you were reacting to straight photographers. You needed to find something to serve your vision. At first some thought you a crackpot; later you were seen as a pioneer and a virtuoso of those techniques. Now some people might think that your methods are archaic. To see that kind of transition must be highly ironic.

JU It's so funny because you can go from being a revolutionary challenging the accepted to being archaic. But, you know it's my vocabulary. One of the things I've felt, a bizarre thing, was that photography had become so camera oriented. I had always liked the darkroom, it was this visual research lab, a place for alchemy to occur. When you look at photo magazines, for every enlarger ad, there's a hundred camera ads. So that's the focus, for the populace too, because many people like to take pictures and they don't have darkrooms. That always was the emphasis for the whole industry. My analogy was a lot of photographers have many cameras and one enlarger and I have one camera and many enlargers. (I actually have more than one camera but I don't have a lot.)

My chief criticism when I was emerging was from photographers, but I didn't get any of that from my art faculty friends here. They were fine with it. But the photographers constantly questioned me. One of the most common responses that used to throw me was, "This is interesting but it's not photography." Wait a minute! I buy everything at the camera store! What do you want to call it? Thirty years ago, particularly in academia, we wanted to define whatever media it was. This is what a photograph should look like and this is what a painting should look like. Then all of that changed.

JPC That's where many of notions about photography came from, that method of approaching a definition with the impulse to analyze and separate ...

JU ... to show what the differences were.

JPC Exactly. And thus legitimize it.

JU It's true. It's crazy. In a way, when the New York Times used to have a page called Camera. Jacob Ashe would say, "There's a show of pictures of roses at the YMCA." It wasn't critical analysis. But the first photographers to be dealt with on the art page in the art section were people like Cartier-Bresson and Edward Weston, where the work was not threatening in any way to painting. Paul Strand, all the classic kind of safe stuff. Now today we have this whole ball of wax mixed together. There's no separation.

JPC I'm not sure I'd go quite that far. Painting felt threatened the minute photography was born. Yet later it was photography that liberated painters from the confines of realism. All of these restrictions and definitions are undergoing a process of disintegration. Technique and materials have been driving this relatively recent revolution too much, placing the emphasis on the wrong areas. Evolution is far too optimistic a word, but there has been a progression of vision. One would hope we could shift our concern to a history of vision and process, not a history of materials and technique.

JU The limits are up here. It's not in the materials. It's endless, the possibilities that exist out there for making marks with whatever you have. You name the system, it is wide open. The limits are truly in how people think about it. We've seen major, major changes in the world of art. It is only natural to accept that thinking is constantly challenged. It goes up and down, some things survive and some things don't. It's part of life's rich pageant.

JPC There is a tremendous psychological dimension to your work, in fact in your work it is more overt than in most photography. I wouldn't say there isn't a psychological dimension to the other photography, we talked about Weston's pepper, there is certainly a psychological dimension to that. But a surreal, I use this word for lack of a more encompassing term, aesthetic does bring into focus ideas of looking in and looking out, of the external world being used as a metaphor for the internal world. Have you studied psychology over the years?

JU I'm in total agreement with everything you just said. The psychological dimension is really an important part of my work. I have always been interested in psychology and one of my close friends was a major figure in humanistic psychology. There was a point at which I really believed in a lot of that. And then there was a point at which some people in Jungian psychology got interested in my work and started talking about the archetypal quality of some of the images. I had this article Bill Parker did back in the late sixties where he dug out all these old paintings that had similar things to what I had done and I was totally unaware of. I remember when he was interviewing me he'd ask me these elaborate questions. Were you thinking about this when you did this? What did you think about first when you did it? Most of the time I said, "I don't know.""Oh great!" he'd respond. It's like the fact that my conscious mind didn't know was somehow the right answer. I'd never been in a situation where not knowing was what they wanted to hear.

I haven't spent a great deal of time studying psychology but I like the dimension of this other sensibility, where the images have a psychological prescence. It's not just a matter of responding to something visual, there's a way in which humanistically you try to participate in whatever that event presents. I like the dream-like sensibility. But I don't like when people say, "Well you're illustrating dreams." I'm not. I don't have a dream and then try and created it. That non-rational aspect of the dream challenges your sense of reality. I like the fact that when we do fall asleep we become mythic and symbolic creatures. We invent levels of reality. I'm always amazed the extent to which people respond to images that I create on that level. This is some kind of emotional thing that they can connect with. The imagery has its own sensibility that a lot of people can connect with. Particularly young people don't have any problem with that stuff. There's a leap of faith element. In other words, in terms of responding, you don't challenge it, "What does this mean?" You go with it.

JPC You're not looking for logical justifications, the work strikes another chord.

JU Right. Once you give up on trying to figure out what it means, it has another kind of meaning. It's the whole thing that Louis Armstrong said when asked, "What does jazz mean?" He'd say, "If you have to ask you're never going to get to know." A lot of times people ask me to tell them what it means, like I'm going to give them some little secret. I think my art is very much a part of a tradition, yours is too, where it's really directed towards the inventive consciousness not just the perceptive consciousness of seeing what's there. They are called upon to participate in it if they are going to have any authentic experience with it. A lot of contemporary art functions in that way and it's the extent to which it pulls it off that lets them really go with it. I don't have any hidden agenda really. Some of the images I can connect to in specific ways, they have meaning for me, but whether other people get that same meaning is not a concern that I have. They should just respond to these things.

JPC And you don't mind when they come up with responses that differ from yours?

JU No. Sometimes it's really insightful to hear the way other people respond. And that leads to the Jungian thing.

JPC The Jungian notion would hope that we would all come up with a similar level. This other interactive element challenges that and suggests that the variety we get can be equally important. A specific individual content can be just as revealing to the participant as a cultural or universal one, and serves an important function. I'm very cautious about explaining my images to someone. I only do it if I feel they will be able to sustain their original impressions and can simply add mine to the ongoing dialog that occurs between the viewer and the subject. People will come up and ask me what is it. If I tell them it's ice, they often quickly dismiss the image. But if I withhold that information mystery persists and a richer experience is had by all.

JU I agree. I've had that same experience. I try, whenever I can, to at least give some more cryptic or poetic response. I don't like the idea that people think that art is somehow dumb. We do think about these things. You can provide clues. But I don't want to present it like, "This is the answer. This is what that one's about, now lets move onto the next." Art history does a lot of naming. If you have to study art, that's the thing that can screw you up, because you get to a point where you're having to learn dates and names and styles and all that kind of stuff. And so you begin to think that's the appropriate response to a painting. You're giving all this information and you're not really responding.

JPC The difference between reciting what you have learned and expressing what you personally know. The process of living is about your own personal experience and the truth that brings. We are all witnesses to different experience.

JU I'm constantly struggling to find a language that can at least begin to give people some way of being more responsive to the work if they realize there are other qualities that I feel are there. If you read most of the journals dealing with contemporary art you would think that there is no art being done today that has spiritual qualities. One of the main reasons is it's much more difficult to write about, either the psychological or spiritual dimension of art. It's easier to write about work dealing with aids, or incest, or feminism, whatever the issues that have an agenda that are out there. There's nothing wrong with that kind of work. But I think the writers, the critics find that easier to deal with.

JPC Of course. It's safer, more politically correct, more widely understood, with clearer answers. In a pluralistic society how do we engage spirituality publicly?

JU I maintain, and there have been a few books, that a part of the art scene is very much that work that has a poetic sensibility to it. I felt back in the fifties, even in the sixties, there was some effort to deal with poetic imagery. As we got into more politically correct art it was cast by the wayside.

Weston had this thing years ago, "When I was young you see, in my early thirties, I defined art as outer expression of inner growth. But I can't define art any better today. My work has changed. It is not something to be learned apart, from books and rules. It is a living thing which depends on the whole participation. As we grow in life so we grow in art. Each of us in his own way." Amen. Obviously that meant so much to me at one time that I memorized it. This modernist, romantic, poetic definition of art still works for me. I would modify it somewhat, but I still basically believe it.

JPC What of the role of humor?

JU Well, you know, I really think it’s a difficult question because I don’t want to pretend that humor isn’t a part of my life cause I really, I mean, it’s a major quality I like in people when they have a sense of humor. And I feel that you know in my own work there’s such a broad range, that while I do make images that have that element, and I would like to keep doing that, I don’t want people to, at the expense of images that don’t have that quality, pretend that well, it’s all like one big joke. I see humor as something beyond a joke. The thing I mentioned, the way in which a lot of the work I do relates to some humor is that you have that unexpected thing happen, that’s what, you know, jokes are about. You tell the story, you build the pattern, and there’s this little twist that we have sort of visually that happens, you know, sometimes. But a lot of the, I mean, the humor can be at so many different levels. You can comment on things through humor and people are more willing to kind of deal with it.

JPC You can deal with difficult subjects more easily.

JU Yeah. You know, I was reminded when, I thought of this after you left last night, when I traded with your dad for pictures, like I wanted his classic image, he was probably fed up with printing that sucker, but he wanted from me The Flamingos Visit Yosemite. And I thought, “Of all the pictures.” This is strange. (laughter) But we were in Yosemite at the time and he thought it was kind of clever or whatever. So we traded that. But that’s a good example of, you know, it’s a humorous kind of picture. And it’s subtle, because a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily know. Most people would know that flamingos aren’t in Yosemite.

JPC It’s a fairly seemless image.

JU Yeah. Yeah. And I’ll continue to do it. I don’t, I really don’t like to think about how the image is going to function so much so much when I’m generating it. You just get involved with it, constructing this image. There’s all that kind of confusion and self-doubt and sometimes the technical concerns of can I do this, can I get these things to integrate and blend, they seem to be dominating my conscious mind. At the same time there’s a point at which you back off and ask, “What is this about?” And it’s all that, I don’t know, how can I say it, it’s like this intense self-dialog that happens during that process. And part of the craft thing I feel is has always been a bit of a savior for me because if you get too caught up in intellectually there is that problem of talking yourself out of so many things that might potentially produce something.