On Photography: Jerry Uelsmann, 1934-2022

“I have gradually confused photography with life.” — Jerry Uelsmann

This On Photography article is personal as I, too have gradually confused with life.

Meeting Jerry Uelsmann

I met Jerry Uelsmann in the early 1970s. Boise State’s photography department chair, Howard Huff, had invited him to exhibit his work at the student union. I was a sophomore then. I went to the show and it was life-changing for me.

When I saw them in line for lunch, I took my tray to their table and joined them. Howard scowled a bit. I could tell he wasn’t really pleased with my interruption. But I was so moved by what I had seen in Jerry’s show that I had to get closer to this artist of the darkroom.

Later that day, Jerry came to one of the few photography classes offered by Boise State. I was fortunate enough to be in one where he did a demonstration showing he created his montages in the school’s darkroom using several enlargers.

I was already really interested in photography. His demo solidified my so far life-long love of the craft. He has always been an inspiration to me.

I met up with Jerry several times after that — at a conference of the Society of Photographic Educators in Atlanta. Jerry was a founding member of that organization. I talked with him at a couple of Photo Plus events and at an Adobe cocktail party in New York. Every time he was gracious and welcoming. His loss is personal to me. That’s why I’ve written this expanded article to mark the passing of this singularly gentle, innovative, inspirational man.

Walking with a camera

“The simple act of having a camera, not a cell phone, but a camera-camera, there’s a kind of a heightened perceptional awareness that occurs. Like, I could walk from here to the highway in two minutes, but if I had a camera, that walk could take me two hours.” –Jerry Uelsmann

Ansel Adams taught pre-visualization. It looking a scene and imaging how the finished print would look in his mind’s eye. He then set up his camera and made the exposure of the negative that would allow him to make the print later in his darkroom.

Jerry Uelsmann Self Portrait

Post-visualization

Jerry Uelsmann is a master of a process he has named “post-visualization.” He has spent 50 years photographing places, objects, figures, nudes, rocks, fields, skies, clouds — the list is frankly seemingly endless. Yet he doesn’t print a single one of them. He layers many images together onto a single print. Jerry Uelsmann does all of his work on film. His mysterious, evocative prints are made in his chemical analog darkroom.

He spends hours with his library of contact sheets considering which images will work together then, spends hours in the darkroom setting up numerous negatives in his seven enlargers. His prints are made in a magical way using masking techniques that he has invented to blend many negatives into wondrous works in black and white.

Visual self-challenge

“One thing I try to tell students is that the illusion of knowledge is more detrimental to growth than ignorance,” he said in an interview from the New York Times Lens blog, “because once you think you know something, the questioning stops. And it’s that ongoing ability to question your own imagery. You should even question your own thinking. I find it exciting to constantly challenge myself visually.” He goes on to note, “If I have an ultimate goal, it’s to amaze myself.”

Jerry Ueslsmann self portrait
Jerry Uelsmann Self Portrait

Three images a year

Jerry Uelsmann makes a hundred images a year. Usually, only three make the cut. Uelsmann says he works hard at his art. He sets up an idea and then runs tests. It can take days to arrive at a final image. When an image is finished, Uelsmann duplicates them by repeating the process of moving the paper from enlarger to enlarger and so on until developing the print and fixing it into a finished, archival photograph.

“And once I get a completed image, I consider — how many prints should I make? Most of mine have never sold that many. At that point, you want the Holy Ghost to whisper in your ear, “Just do two of those.”

Analog darkroom or Photoshop

Adobe approached Jerry Uelsmann in the mid-1990s to create an image to be printed as a poster to promote Photoshop. According to Uelsmann’s ex-wife Maggie Taylor, Adobe scanned several of his negatives and provided a Photoshop guru to assemble the image. Uelsmann directed the composite and the guru worked in Photoshop on the computer. He liked the result of the collaboration. Uelsmann went into his darkroom and recreated it as a silver gelatin photographic print (opening photo, top row, first image.)

Uelsmann does everything in the chemical darkroom. He tests over and over again until he makes a trial image that he likes. He compared his work to that of his former wife Maggie Taylor, “It can take days, literally, to make the print. And the one thing I’m most jealous of — well, there’s several things. My [ex] wife Maggie can work at the computer for an hour, two hours and just save it,” he said, “Once I’m set up in the darkroom, I have to have a minimum of five hours, and preferably seven or eight hours because you’ve got liquids, you’ve got wet prints. You can’t just leave ’em overnight. And you’ve got to carry through this process. And now, because I guess I’m in the big leagues, I have to do the archival processing, which is additional steps — so I need toning. So that just takes time.”

Uelsmann’s process

In his book, Uelsmann” Process and Perception, he walks the reader through the creation of some of his surreal images. He explains his thinking. In the Lens Blog he said, “

I have stacks of contact sheets from different time periods and I start seeing how images might fit together. There’s a kind of cognition. I’ll be working on an image and I’ll remember a photograph I made 20 years earlier or 15 years earlier. I have to find the negative that I think might fit into that context.”

“But it’s a much more intuitive and emotionally based. You could look at my large body of work and develop themes but I don’t sit down and think, “I’m going to deal with that theme.” It emerges because I am who I am, and these are my life experiences.”

Jerry Uelsmann’s work is like the Belgian painter Renee Magritte.

Take a look inside Jerry Uelsmann’s darkroom as he creates one of his composite photographs with the short video below.

More surreality from Jerry Uelsmann

20109-12-15 Jerry Uellsmann FP

Sources: New York Times, Lens Blog,

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