Interview with Jerry Uelsmann: Invented Realities

What captured your imagination regarding surrealism?  Back in the 50s you could read every book on serious photography over the weekend and still have time to go swimming. There wasn’t a lot of material out there dealing with surrealism and photography. Although there were certain movements that occurred, they weren’t really essential to the aesthetic of the photography at that time.

In the world of broad based art, as you go from the 19th into the 20th century, you essentially go from what was outer directed art – that fulfilled the needs of the religious beliefs system or patron who was paying for this, or of the culture to support popular ideas – to art that was inner directed. Then, in the 20th century, it becomes acceptable that the artist believes that they can invent a reality that is personally more meaningful than the ones that are literally given to the eye.

When I was a graduate student, abstract expression was the in thing. There was action painting and all this stuff that transition in belief systems really identified with. If you think about it, photography is a way of making marks on paper. Recently, someone asked me if I could define photography and I said photography is just life remembering itself. The concept that I was known for, post-visualization and pre-visualization, still remains as the dominant aesthetic.

Because of your subject matter, would you agree with me that you weren’t as well received?

Oh yeah. I was around faculty that were printmakers, painters and sculptors­– not other photographers. My salary was $5,000/year and this was in 1960-61. We would all pile into the car and drive straight to New York to check out the shows. I would show my photographs to photographers that I know out there. The interesting thing for me was that when I showed my work to these photographers they would tell me it's not photography. I'm in the darkroom for many hours and I buy many of my supplies at the camera store. What am I supposed to call this? It didn’t fall within their perception of what photography should be. There are still people that have problems with my work and they feel it’s not a part of the basic aesthetic of photography.

How does that make you feel? Now you must be having a resurgence or new appreciation of your work given the digital revolution, doing what you did.

It amazes me of how many emails I get from people doing papers on me. There are these books on photoshop where they have a history section and use five of my images, yet there are other books out there that say “100 Photographers You Should Know” and I'm not in there, but I make it because the younger generation. Although many of them assume I'm working a digital end, if I were twenty years younger I would have totally gone over to the digital world.

My process in the darkroom became a part of my creative process. The analog is definitely where I'm at, and my wife Maggie is an amazing digital artist but the learning curve for photoshop is steep. I always say: something good about photoshop, it gives you an immense number of visual options, something bad about photoshop, it gives you an immense number of visual options.

Do you think you could get a New York Gallery now?

I had one for forty years but I don’t understand that part of the art world. But I am happy. I work regularly – it's therapy for me at this point. I’m going to continue making these images regardless .

Do you have any tips for any of the other photographers that try to get grants?

 Teaching was my main support system. University of Florida was one of the few universities where you could major in photography, and more schools began to accept that photography could be a part of their fine art program. The graduate students that we were turning out all found jobs teaching. There wasn’t an option to sell your work and live by doing that. I did have two very important grants though. I received the Guggenheim, and that gave me time because when I started teaching I was trying to build enthusiasm for photography. I had to make the slides for the art book using every penny I had. It took a lot of time and energy and once I had the Guggenheim, that gave me a year off where I could just devote myself to solely working in the darkroom. People always ask, “What does it take to be successful image maker.” If you’re an anal-retentive workaholic, that helps. Then I had an NEA grant, which gave me a semester off. At one point I had a faculty development grant here at the university that allowed you to do research without the teaching responsibility. There were various times where those grants were very important. They said we believe in what you’re doing enough that we feel you should have time to really focus on that, but all of those grants were done years ago.


How did it affect you when people didn’t receive you with open arms?

You have to learn to cope with that. I remember a show in San Francisco that I had once and the reviewer said, "Uelsmann’s work fails to reflect current objective structural thinking." Well, what the fuck is that? I don’t know what they're talking about. They obviously didn’t look at the pictures. A lot of the time these people have an agenda and you're somehow supposed to be a part of that temporary thinking. I have always worked through that sort of stuff. Once I'm in the darkroom and by myself, creating the mountain that I'm climbing, I'm trying to please myself. If other people can find ways of relating to the images, that is wonderful, that is a real bonus, but I am not making them for any particular commercial assignment. Obviously I would like everyone to find some way of connecting to the work. To this day there are many major critics or curators that don’t see me as any part of the photo history. I'm someone between the cracks that doesn’t fit with their version.

How did you decide that photo montage was going to be your expression?

I can remember as a graduate student, walking around looking for something, and if you start thinking about it too much – like what does it mean? – there was a point at which that freed me up to ask, what’s wrong with multiple exposure? This is a natural, photographic phenomena. What’s wrong with the negative image? It’s a part of the process and it could be seen on paper. I began exploring what some of the visual options were and it was like building a visual vocabulary.

When you first do these things you’re not sure how you’re going to use it but you see it starts having an effect. If you’re going to use the negative image of someone’s face it instantly gives a psychological dimension to that image, so over the years I tried things in the darkroom. Usually the first time I do things it’s about the technique. It’s like a new word that you don’t quite know how to use but eventually, if you work long enough, it works naturally on some pre-conscious level. You begin exploring these things. There is great acceptance for work that has that dimension but there is, in today’s world, a tremendous emphasis on documentary kind of photography. There was a thing in the paper today about people killed in Syria. If you had photographs of the wounded, you could probably have a museum show because museums are trying to be more topical. I don’t see photography as a competitive sport. It’s wonderful that that kind of imagery is there and that they're are dedicated, innovative photojournalists.

Jerry Uelsmann, Untitled, 1989.

Do you think that seems to be disappearing now?

I don’t want it to totally disappear but I would like them to accept that there are these invented realities that have value that people are creating. There is still a direct connection.

What do you think makes an effective mentor?

Henry Smith asked who, more than anyone else, pushed me into the deep water. He was the man that constantly challenged what you believe in and what you care about. He just pushed the limits. When I taught I wanted people to explain what their concerns were. You look at the ends to which you're visually getting at because a lot of times people think they are expressing these ideas. In ways that, because of personal reasons, need to believe it’s working. Other people are seeing something different in that.

When you're young you follow many paths. I was documenting a slum area near Indiana University named Pigeon Hill. I was showing my contacts list to Henry Smith and he kept looking at me. He said I want you to go back and photograph every house on one of these streets. I was thinking, this is a waste of time, I don’t want to do this. He was the kind of guy that would blow up. I argued but eventually I got my camera and walked down the street in front of every house and took a picture. We sat down and looked at them. What he suddenly is pointing out to me while I was dealing with what I considered a poverty-stricken area, I had bypassed any house that had a well-kept lawn. I thought I was objectively doing something. That was insightful to me, the idea that nothing is really objective. You have personal ways that you relate to the world and now the stuff that I talk openly about is that all knowledge is self-reflective. It travels through who you are at any given age in your life. When you’re five years old, what is your perception of the world? When you're thirty-five? When you’ve been in and out of love, things affect the way you perceive the world and yourself.

Jerry Uelsmann, Self-Reflection, 2004.

How do you spend your day now?

My favorite kind of days include me getting up, having some strong kind of coffee and I look at contact sheets from many, many years ago. I still shoot film and I try to find things that are a point of departure. One of the myths is that suddenly you get a brilliant idea. That doesn’t happen! Occasionally there will be things that you think are going to work. This is why you have to actively work at what you're doing. I keep working and sometimes my images all have the negative for several weeks and I try several variations.

Some days I get so frustrated and I say, “Jerry look, there is more than one right answer.” That’s one of the nice things about art. But the one thing I do know or believe in about art is that art cannot afford compromise. Why would you compromise on this thing that is representing you? I would repeat any part of the process 100 times if I thought I could significantly improve any particular image. I still don’t turn off my brain so when I'm photographing I'm still thinking so I can collect things, not knowing where they are going to fit in the end result image.

What is the name of your new book?

“Uelsman Untitled.”

What would three words be to describe you?

Naturally curly hair! I don’t know. That’s hard. There is an essay by our curator here. She does bring up the fact that I've always had a sense of humor and I try to keep abreast in what's going on in the world but I don’t know three words that describe me. I think it's important to have a playful sensibility in terms of creating art but play is not the opposite of serious. Playful is just an attitude that allows you to try things, to trust your pre-conscious brain.

What do you want your work to provoke in people who look at it?

For people who are willing, these images are directed to their inventive consciousness. They complete the cycle. It's not just a matter of making out what's there, the objective consciousness but when they look at these they find some way of resolving it on personal terms.

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