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Masters of Photography
Jerry Uelsmann

Text from James L. Enyeart, Jerry N. Uelsmann, Twenty-Five Years: A Retrospective


TODAY ... NOW ... GOD ONLY KNOWS. I keep imagining that I find notes on my desk like "Stieglitz phoned while you were out." If I could only have been there when he called ~ perhaps he would know what I'm up to. I range from paralyzing self-pity to incredible productivity, I have long been nourished by enigma. I'm not trying to solve anything. All my priorities are shifting. My questions have a better 'feel" to them and I'm still learning about being Alive.

Believe me, there's always doubt about what you are doing. It has never interfered much with my productivity but it's always there, filling the air with questions. It took me a long time to realize that constant sustained questioning is capable of contributing to a healthy state. Offhand I would say two conditions must exist: first, the process (camera or darkroom) must be trusted to have equal responsibility informing the questions, and second, one must establish some sense of connoisseurship that helps the questioning process grow in terms of precision and intensity.

The above is from a letter written by Uelsmann to Peter Bunnell in February 1974, a year before publication of Silver Meditations, which marks the end of the period discussed in this section. During these eight years Uelsmann received his greatest exposure through exhibition, publication, and honors. His style was now distinct and recognizable. His execution and craftsmanship in photomontage were flawless, and critics began to talk about his work on the basis of his aesthetics, no longer dwelling on his technique.

The year 1967 was an almost magical turning point. John Szarkowski organized a one-person exhibition of his photographs at the Museum of Modern Art; he received a Guggenheim Fellowship; Camera Magazine in Switzerland featured his photographs; and significant American publications like Aperture and Contemporary Photographer included major coverage of his work and ideas.

Uelsmann's aesthetic premise for his unique, psychologically draped imagery is stated conclusively in the letter to Bunnell quoted above. Had his remarks been public, they would have put to rest the critical misstatement that his photographs were surrealistic. As a body, his photographs defy any single categorization, just as each of his photographs defies literal interpretation. What appears surreal in his work is most often the product of an absurd or unbelievable juxtaposition of objects or situations. Such has been the case from the very first successful "surreal" image of his student days. However, the stream-of-consciousness method of the founders of Surrealism is rarely employed by Uelsmann. In fact, Uelsmann's selection of subjects for juxtaposition contradicts the Surrealist dictum of automatism.

Experimentation involves inventing a language at the same time you're using it. I make proof sheets of everything. The negatives are kept in numerical order, but I let proof sheets get mixed up. I have found that I can pick up a hundred proof sheets and, in a matter of five minutes, find the particular image I want to work with. I need a retrievable system that is not complex, one that includes a very loose structure for proof sheets. They are my visual dictionary and/or diary. They represent everything that I've seen and responded to over a period of many years....
Because of the way I work, a lot of my proof sheets involve the collecting of things visually. Rarely do I decide while I'm taking the photograph where the element will end up....
When I get ready to print, I sit down with a stack of proof sheets. Usually the things that are most recent are on top, but they get rapidly mixed with the others. I look at these proof sheets and try to find clues to things that might work together. Sometimes (and this is a mental state) I'll sit down and, in half an hour, I can make more little notes of things I want to try than I could possibly do in a week.
Uelsmann makes the absurd appear believable and the incongruous convincing - which Surrealism rarely intends or achieves - by a method he has called "in-process discovery," a term he absorbed from colleagues in the painting department of the University of Florida. However, for Uelsmann, in-process discovery is more than a harmonious relationship between medium and cognition. It is in essence a gestalt position, in which creativity is viewed in terms of one's ability to associate dissimilar elements in meaningful ways and to restructure the entire stimulus field. To disassociate known subject relationships (reality) and reassociate them in new but perhaps mysterious ways is the aesthetic thread that runs throughout his work. When Uelsmann speaks of "questions" in referring to his work, he is promoting "doubt" as a positive and essential force within in-process discovery. Time and again he refers to this point, as in the quotations that open this section and in the following:
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.
While several substantial essays were written about Uelsmann during the period from 1967 to 1975, the most insightful were those by William E. Parker and Peter Bunnell. Both wrote basic critical essays on Uelsmann's photographs for Aperture. Parker's article of 1967, entitled "Uelsmann's Unitary Reality," was unquestionably the more esoteric, and probed the psycho-history of Uelsmann's imagery with authority and poetry, in a machine-gun fire of prose. Parker saw Uelsmann's imagery as wholly symbolic and based on psychological archetypes. Image after image was dissected in an attempt to throw light on what others had perceived as hidden and surreal. Within the limits of what one can understand of the psychologizing content and of one's belief in its fundamentalist approach, the essay is brilliant. But Parker's article was not widely read, and, although it was the first substantial treatment of Uelsmann's work, it did not have much effect upon the field in terms of broadening the understanding of his photography. In spite of this, the essay did serve to promote Uelsmann's emergence into the arena of popular awareness and critical inquiry. A certain measure of credibility was gained, of course, through Aperture's reputation as a leading publication of fine photography and the stature of the journal's editor, Minor White.

Three years later, Peter Bunnell published his essay in Aperture; although not as comprehensive a treatment as Parker's, it offered a clearer understanding of Uelsmann as an artist and a foundation for approaching his work in traditional aesthetic terms. But it was Bunnell's essay in Silver Meditations, the first major monograph on Uelsmann in book form, that, through its extraordinary flow of language and ideas, gave the photography community its first real glimpse of the meaning behind Uelsmann's unique style and solitary aesthetic approach. Published in 1975, it found Uelsmann at a high point in his career in terms of critical attention. The book was perfectly timed, and it sold over 15,000 copies. Uelsmann and Bunnell had been close friends since the late fifties, so his understanding of the work is not surprising. The following passage from the Silver Meditations essay sums up the direction of Uelsmann's work around 1975:

In contrast to his earlier pictures, Uelsmann's work in recent years has become less graphically dominating in terms of what may be seen as the relatively simple and harmonious counterpoint of objects andforms. Since 1972 the picture space in his images has been filled in a more total and stressing fashion reflecting his own more complex psychic nature. He has reached the point where the work has turned in upon itself, where the master of craft has moved outside of illusions and conscious showmanship to a more introspective state of affairs where one can no longer tell so easily what is going on.
Indeed, Uelsmann's photographs of this time became more complex in their range of meanings and were more subtle in the use of traditional devices (disparity of scale, exaggerated perspective, and so on) found in his photographs before 1967. His imagery was now more obviously introspective and concentrated in his favorite areas of mystery, fantasy, and absurdity. Especially characteristic of the change in his work during this period was the use of humor; Bunnell noted that the recent work would be "much less apt to amuse the viewer." This is not to suggest that Uelsmann's particular brand of humor was no longer present in his work. It had simply become more subtle, although still dependent on parody. Henry Holmes Smith had first commented on Uelsmann's use of humor as early as 1964 in an essay he had written for the quarterly Contemporary Photographer:
The comic is able to pay attention and therefore can make unexpected connections between otherwise unconnected fragments known to all of us.

In his present work Uelsmann is using the skill of the comic to make some of these connections, but he is not concerned with any important comic effect. What in his daily life has been refracted, he restores in a strange way we all can recognize. What may have been a joke or a hurt turned into a joke takes a different turn in the photographs. The funny becomes grotesque, a grotesquery capable at times of arousing the feeling of horror ....

I hope I will not be misunderstood when I suggest that here we may see the vaudeville performer's Hamlet (the comic playing a tragic role). Some of the awkwardness, and all of the striving for dramatic intensity, are present. Yet in many of the pictures there is an undeniable sense of reality felt and expressed.


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