A few weeks ago we profiled Maggie Taylor, and she spoke affectionately about how her husband Jerry Uelsmann provided her with crucial input on her dreamlike photomontages. Though they share a love for images that seem to originate in the subconscious, puzzled together from disparate sources, Taylor wholly embraces digital means and color (by way of her particular agility with Photoshop), while Uelsmann has remained faithful to his early training in darkroom alchemy and the subtleties of silver-based black-and-white. Both have tirelessly explored phantasmal realms combining dramatic vistas of the natural world and human figures with a potently suggestive psychological, and especially in Uelsmann’s case, metaphysical dimension. Both would have been warmly welcomed by the Surrealists and their eccentric uncle René Magritte.
Uelsmann, 81, remembers when photography was the poor stepchild of the art world.
Back in the 1950s, art historians, if they had Phds from anywhere in the world, would only use the word “photographic” pejoratively. They didn’t celebrate photography in any way. They might mention Stieglitz’s gallery, but it was as a separate pursuit. I really felt that my broad-based knowledge of art in the end proved very helpful to me.
Now that photography is unequivocally valued by art-world elites, Uelsmann enjoys the honors and appointments of an elder artist and revered professor. His most recent book, Uelsmann Untitled, is a retrospective that celebrates decades of euphoric inventiveness characterized by a unique mix of trompe l’oeil trickery and the timelessness of myth. Though he’s not fond of the term “dreamscape,” there’s no better hashtag for what one sees and is becalmed by in his work.
Uelsmann makes no claim to understand precisely where his meticulously constructed enigmas come from, nor even how they should be interpreted — he prefers to leave that to the viewer. But he acknowledges recurring motifs that can be seen as clues to his own persona and interior life. He pulls the ingredients of his seamless picture plane from his thousands of contact sheets, which are his point of departure. He admits that if he were younger, he’d have made the switch to digital modes, but he’s too locked into his darkroom modus operandi to start over now. And besides, he is daunted by the plethora of choices in the new age. “Say something good about Photoshop: it gives you an immense number of visual options. Say something bad about Photoshop: it gives you an immense number of visual options.”
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