His story is untitled

As he leads a visitor through his modernist Florida home and into his three-room photo studio that’s chockablock with cartoons (some naughty, some nice) pinned to the walls, shelf after shelf of antique cameras, assorted doll heads, offbeat toys, drawings from artist friends, witty posters, miscellaneous Victoriana, thousands of contact sheets, prints, and more flotsam and jetsam that’s washed up here during his six decades as an internationally known photographer, Jerry Uelsmann admits with a smile, “I know, I know: It’s a mess. But it works.”

And so does Uelsmann, who at 82 could be resting on his laurels. He’s been recognized as a preeminent photographer since his first one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. Since then he has taught photography at the University of Florida in Gainesville and has published more than a score of books. His work has been featured in more than 100 shows around the world and is included in the permanent collections of museums including New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paris’ Bibliotheque National, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, among others. Art critics have called his work “iconic,” “magical,” and “masterful” and have labeled him an “alchemist,” “pioneer,” and “a master craftsman.”   

“I’ll settle for just ‘photographer,’” says Uelsmann, whose bright hazel eyes are seen behind round-frame translucent blue glasses and set off by an unruly shock of curly white hair. He sorts through a large stack of more than 30 16x22-inch gelatin silver black-and-white prints and explains, “Very few people have seen these. I’ve made them last year and a few this year.” He laughs and adds, “I’m an anal-retentive, compulsive workaholic!”

His story is untitled, fine art photographer Jerry Uelsmann
© Jerry Uelsmann

The striking, often surreal or dreamlike prints are vintage Uelsmann. Trees float in mid-air, rocks and hands have huge haunting eyes layered within them, a tree trunk morphs into a dilapidated mansion. All are as beautiful as they are mysterious. Uelsmann presents an otherworldly view of nature, but the dreamlike compositions draw viewers into the scene. As a The Wall Street Journal reviewer noted about one of his photomontages, “Like so many of Mr. Uelsmann’s pictures, this is a very satisfying image to look at. In spite of its contradiction of nature, we feel we are in the hands of a beneficent conjuror.”

Each print is a photomontage, composed from numerous—as many as three to five—negatives that Uelsmann painstakingly blends together to make a single composite black-and-white print. Why black-and-white? “Black-and-white in general gives you a broader reference because sometimes the color itself can be so seductive as to add a kind of distortion,” he says.

These photomontages, which he’s been creating since the 1960s, have earned him the moniker “the father of Photoshop,” even though he doesn’t use the computer to manipulate images. “I do everything the old fashioned way, the way I always have,” he says. “I do it all in the darkroom.”

As if on cue, Uelsmann opens his darkroom door, which bears the sign “Art is Work.” “I think of the darkroom as a visual research lab,” he explains. “It’s where I explore all the alternatives I have with my photographs I am thinking of combining. It’s a totally absorbing process. I can get lost in here for hours.”

His story is untitled, fine art photographer Jerry Uelsmann
© Jerry Uelsmann

After exploring his contact sheets, which include tens of thousands of photos he’s taken since the 1960s, he finds what he calls, “my point of departure.” To combine his images he uses as many of the seven variable head enlargers he owns as needed. “Recently I was using five enlargers for one print,” he says.

He compares his process to a writer beginning a story. The place he starts doesn’t always lead to the ending: He may discard an image or come up with another option. “A writer might say, ‘I don’t know where this is going’ and abandon his beginning to start on a new track,” he explains. “That’s the way I work in the darkroom. I never know how a print is going to end up. I may work on an image for two weeks, then change it the next day,” he says.

Uelsmann describes his darkroom process as “post-visualization.” Instead of pre-visualizing a photo he takes with his camera, as Ansel Adams espoused (and with whom Uelsmann taught for years) he takes photos and later considers how they might be combined to create an image. “The darkroom is where I make those discoveries,” he says. “Each new picture is a leap of faith.” He compares the process to the way a painter works: “It’s rare for a painter to begin with a fully conceived canvas. There’s a dialog as the work evolves.”

His story is untitled, fine art photographer Jerry Uelsmann
© Jerry Uelsmann

Although he’s earned a wide range of awards and praise over his career, Uelsmann wasn’t immediately accepted by fellow photographers. “In the early days I’d often get the comment, mostly from photographers, That’s interesting but it isn’t photography,” he explains. He smiles as he recalls his response: “I’d tell them, ‘Not photography? I used a camera and a darkroom. What should I call it?’ Thankfully a lot of those prejudices have disappeared.”     

Because he doesn’t set out to create a specific picture but relies on discovery and magic to help him, he’s reluctant to title his creations or explain what they may mean. Many of his compositions, and his recent book, are labeled simply “Untitled.”

“I want my pictures to be open-ended and let the viewer see what he or she wants to see in them,” he says. “Titles can inhibit that. I like to think of many of my photographs as being obviously symbolic but not symbolically obvious.”

At an exhibition of his work in Verona an Italian woman took him aside and explained how appreciative she was of all the subtle Jewish symbolism that occurred in his work. “But I’m not Jewish!” he laughs. “However, I thanked her because obviously she was involved in this work in a way that had deep meaning to her. That’s a great compliment. There’s no specific agenda that people have to respond to in a certain way.”

His story is untitled, fine art photographer Jerry Uelsmann
© Jerry Uelsmann

Uelsmann hopes for an authentic, perhaps emotional response to his work. “If the first question someone asks me about a picture is ‘How did you do that?’ I feel I’ve failed. The first response should be, ‘Oh my God!’ or ‘I had a dream like that!’ or something that is authentic.”

Given his unique body of work, Uelsmann is often asked what he thinks of Photoshop. (There are even numerous online tutorials based on creating the “Jerry Uelsmann effect” in Photoshop.) “I always say the best thing about Photoshop is that it gives you an immense number of visual options. And the worst thing about Photoshop is that it gives you an immense number of visual options. When are you done? If I were 20 years younger, I might learn it. But for me the real thrill is spending long hours in the darkroom and watching the print come up in the developer. I’ve been doing it for more than 60 years and it’s still magical!”

He pauses, then adds, “Ultimately my hope is to amaze myself.”

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.