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Jerry Ulsemann photographed by Randy Batista

Jerry Ulsemann © Randy Batista

Jerry Uelsmann began assembling his photographs from multiple negatives decades before digital tools like Photoshop were available. Using as many as seven enlargers to expose a single print, his darkroom skills allowed him to create evocative images that combined the realism of photography and the fluidity of our dreams. As an artist who is not threatened by digital photography, he is convinced that it is equally difficult to produce great images no matter what tool you use. But for him, ďthe alchemy of the photographic processĒ is inextricably tied to his creative vision. A teacher for most of his life, he has helped many photographers push past their limits and challenge their own expectations.
Chris and Larry:: When did you begin assembling your images from multiple negatives?

Jerry: It was the late 1950s. I did a little bit then and then it really took hold once I went to Florida in 1960.

I had the benefits of studying with Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University. He had worked with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in Chicago and was open to all kinds of experimentation. He actually made photographs by refracting light through syrup poured on glass.

Chris and Larry:: What led you to see the power in collage? At that time, straight photography as done by Edward Weston or Ansel Adams was considered the correct way to do photography.

Jerry: I had become restless with trying to find an image that satisfied me in camera. The idea that the creative gesture in photography was when you clicked the shutter was popular when I was a graduate student. A lot of times I found that if I thought too much about the image, Iíd talk myself out of shooting, or I ended up with a lot of images that I thought were okay, but not quite good enough.

When I studied photography at RIT each darkroom had one enlarger. Then when I started teaching we had a group darkroom. I was still using one enlarger, which was labor intensive for multiple printing. One day while I was waiting for some prints to wash, I looked across at the enlargers and thought to myself that if I had the negatives in different enlargers and simply moved the paper, the speed with which I could explore things or line them up would increase a hundred times. That was the moment that changed the way I worked with multiple images.

The other element, which was really a key factor, was that once I began teaching, I ended up being the only photographer in an art department. I was around creative people who were not photographers and who didnít have their images occur in a fraction of a second.

Once I began exploring some of the options in the darkroom, I had tremendous support from my friends on the arts faculty. But when I went to New York to show people what I was doing they would be excited and say, ďitís very, very interesting, but itís not photography.Ē

At the time photographyís highest form was seen in the work of photographers like Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. If you study art history, youíll see that there was a conscious effort to define the separate mediums. Painting was oil on canvas, and sculpture involved traditional materials like stone, wood or metal. And the photograph was defined as a camera conceived silver gelatin print.

Chris and Larry:: Well, you certainly had the support of the art world. You had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967.

Jerry: Yes, and that opened all kinds of doors; it was like being blessed by the Pope. The irony is that John Szarkowski, who gave me that show, later became a champion of photographers like Diane Arbus, Gary Winograd, and Lee Friedlander and became less supportive of the experimental tradition in photography.

Chris and Larry:: How did you start out learning photography?

Jerry: I went to Cooley High School in inner city Detroit. I had terrible grades, but photography was a hobby. I worked part-time helping a photographer at a studio where Iíd load film holders and carry a second strobe unit when they shot weddings. Eventually, during high school, I was shooting weddings.

Then I went to a two-year program RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) to be a portrait photographer. While I was there RIT expanded into a four-year institution with both a photographic science and illustration programs. Beaumont Newhall, who wrote the first popular history of photography book and was director of George Eastman House, began teaching. Then Minor White was hired. Minor would talk about images that happened when the spirit came down and things like that. Until then Ralph Hattersley had been the only RIT professor with a creative attitude towards photography. Hattersley planted a lot of seeds, introducing me to the concept that photography could be used for self-expression. Until then I had thought of photography as doing assignments for others.

At the same time I was at RIT, Bruce Davidson was there. Pete Turner was there. Carl Chiarenza, who went on to get a Ph.D. from Harvard in photo history and Peter Bunnell were there. We had a critical mass for open-ended thinking and discussion about what photography could be. These individuals expanded my ideas about what photography could be. I really feel blessed by that because had things gone differently, I could have been a portrait photographer in Detroit.

After Rochester, I went on to Indiana University. I found myself very disillusioned with the audiovisual program I was in. Then Minor told me I should look up Henry Holmes Smith in the art department, and I started taking some courses with him. I asked if I could change programs and work on my Master of Fine Arts degree in the art department. Henryís first response was ďIf you want to go on in art you have to be independently wealthy.Ē I also had to take and pass an art history class to be admitted to the program, which I did.

At the time you could have gathered everybody working with photography as a fine art around a dining room table. Even Ansel Adams was still doing a lot of commercial work. Photography as art had just not received a lot of acceptance.

Chris and Larry:: It seems you were assembling your education like you assemble your images. You were synthesizing elements of understanding from the art world and the photography world. And at that time many people still saw photography as a craft, not an experimental art form.

Jerry: Well your comment is right on. Thatís exactly it. Thereís actually quote in Westonís Daybooks, where he goes to a museum and he sees something that he really likes and thinks, ďGod, thatís something I could useĒ. He thought that you use those things that are by rights of understanding yours. So as various concepts were introduced to me, I would think, ďThis is incredible.Ē Minor was the first role model I had who truly did no commercial photography. He did creative photography and taught and then he hung exhibits. I didnít know people like that existed before. But I did, as you mentioned, bring together various aspects of my educational encounters to create whoever I am, my identity as an image-maker.

Chris and Larry:: Letís talk more about your creative process. When youíre seeking what you have called a Ďreality that transcends surface realityí, where do you begin? Where do you find the inspiration to choose the elements and to assemble the picture as versed to taking a photograph?

Jerry: My creative process begins when I get out with the camera and interact with the world. A camera is truly a license to explore. There are no uninteresting things. There are just uninterested people. For me to walk around the block where I live could take five minutes. But when I have a camera, it could take five hours. You just engage in the world differently. If you can get to a point where you respond emotionally, not intellectually, with your camera thereís a whole world to encounter. Thereís a lot of source material once you have the freedom of not having to complete an image at the camera.

Of course as I developed a way of building images in the darkroom, this also fed back into the way in which I saw the world. So if I find an interesting tree or rock I think, ďGee, that could be a wonderful background for something.Ē I begin to build a vocabulary based on things that I encounter and then I start photographing things specifically for use in my darkroom. I may photograph objects on a light box so they have a white background or shoot things on black velvet so I can sandwich those negatives later in the darkroom

But my initial approach is very non-intellectual. I just canít emphasize that enough. Today there is a lot of conceptually based art that begins with a particular theory and then the individual makes the images to fit. Itís like an assignment, all planned and then they just follow through and do the work. My approach is a lot less premeditated

Chris and Larry:: More of a spontaneous response to the world?

Jerry: Yes, and as a result I think my work has been very challenging for some people to deal with. A lot of it is psychologically and emotionally based. Thatís harder to write about than art that is theory-based, as much contemporary art and post-modernism is. Plus, over the course of the year I make some images that are very playful, others that are very dark. Some of them no one would want to have on their wall. But Iím the first audience, so Iím making them for my own satisfaction.

Chris and Larry:: Your work has been analyzed in terms of Carl Jungís theory of the Collective Unconsciousness and its concept of Archetype. Do you see your work that way?

Jerry: Well, yes. And, in todayís art world French philosopher Jacques Derridaís theory of multiple meanings is also having an influence. Thereís not a common syntax in a lot of visual material so people respond to it differently. When you have subjects that are really open-ended, like a floating rock or a tree or whatever, that causes the consciousness of the viewer to come up with their own way of connecting with that image. Itís the audience that completes the cycle.

This, to me, is the wonderful part of photography and all the arts. There is a kind of an emotional impact that can be felt when you see certain images. It goes beyond communication, as we know it. Once you have seen Edward Westonís photograph of the pepper, you canít pass them in the grocery store without thinking about these things as aesthetic objects. Westonís vision took a common vegetable to a new level. Thatís the aspect of art that I like.

Chris and Larry:: Your work can be seen as very complex, or quite simple.

Jerry: The joke that I tell when I lecture to art students is Ďwhat happens when you cross a post-modernist with a used car salesman?í The answer is you get an offer you canít understand. That always draws a big laugh from the college students because theyíre required to read stuff that is so complex that much of it doesnít make any sense, at least not to me.

Chris and Larry:: Youíve spoken about risk taking and even how self-doubt can be part of the creative process. Can you tell us more about that?

Jerry: Well, I do think, particularly the way I work, the better images occur when youíre moving to the fringes of your own understanding. Thatís where self-doubt and risk taking are likely to occur. Itís when you trust whatís happening at a non-intellectual non-conscious level that you can produce work that later resonates, often in a way that you canít articulate a response to. So much of what we consider knowledge involves being able to state something in words. But there is another level at which things impact us in a visual way that we really canít articulate a response to.

Chris and Larry:: But nonetheless, we have a visceral or an internal connection to some of the elements.

Jerry: Right. Thatís important. Iíve enjoyed teaching photography to all kind of students from beginning to graduate level, and Iíve always felt that walking around with their cameras gave them all kinds of insights that were as important as spending hours in the library.

Chris and Larry:: You have for many years been the acknowledged master of multiple printing and the art of physically collaged images in the darkroom. Iíd like to pull a quote out of your new book, Other Realities, which I think itís truly eloquent. ďI am sympathetic to the current digital revolution and excited by the visual options created by the computer. However, I feel my creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroomĒ Weíve talked mostly about the aesthetic of your work. Perhaps we can talk a bit about your technique and the digital revolution that is going on in photography.

Jerry: Itís interesting how many people assume itís a competition. Actually, Photoshop has generated a much broader audience for my work. When I started people questioned if my work was really even photography, it was so different than the Group f64 approach. Now there are new audiences for my work. And young people who are learning digital skills discover that the real challenge is coming up with an image that resonates, first of all, with your self and hopefully, with an audience. They can learn all these new techniques and think that theyíre easier to use, but creating great images isnít about the tools.

Chris and Larry:: Your wife, Maggie Taylor, is a major digital artist.

Jerry: Yes, and sheís having huge success. Sheís a wonderful image-maker. We both actively engage in the image making process, and work a seven-day week. Itís not uncommon for her to be at the computer and me to be in the darkroom many evenings.

I see the incredible options that Photoshop provides. But the bottom line is the technique has to fit with ideas and images. I fell in love with the alchemy of the photographic process and to this day, watching that print come up in the developer is magic for me. I still find it a wonderful, challenging experience. Itís also a kind of personal therapy for me just to engage in that process. If travel and other work keeps me out of the darkroom a couple of weeks, Iím not a nice person to be with.

Of course, in order to make art, the frustration of not working has to be greater than the frustration of working. I try to push images as far as I can. Sometimes I go too far, then as time passes, I think, ďThat was stupid or overkillĒ or whatever. But you have to go to those places. You canít just say, ďWe have an hour to talk on the phone, letís only be profound.Ē You start wherever you can and then you work at it.

For me, every year I produce at least 100 different images and at the end of the year, I try to sit back and look at them and find ten that I like. Many years, itís hard to find those ten.

Chris and Larry:: Youíre making judgments when youíre looking at those 100 images that youíve created, do you solicit feedback from others as well? Or is it mostly an internal dialog with your self?

Jerry: Actually, thatís a good question. I have some very wonderful friends in academia and the arts. For years Iíd have these close friends over to look at the prints and Iíd ask, ďIf you could have ten of these prints, which ones would you want?Ē I didnít want a heavy intellectual analysis, just personal responses to the images. The crazy thing was that in most cases, there was not a lot of agreement. Obviously, there would be some overlap, but itís a big world out there and people do bring their own sort of aesthetic to bear. But Iím the one that ultimately has to decide when I send things off to finally be in an exhibit or be published.

Itís not easy. Sometimes I have a kind of cognitive dissonance. There are images that Iíve worked on for so long and have fussed over so much that I think they just have to be good. The amount of energy I put into creating them becomes a factor for me. Those are ones that, as time passes, I might later reject. At other times, an image may just involve two negatives and a simple blend, but people say, ďHey, this is a great one.Ē Iím thinking, ďWell, that was a little too easy.Ē But thatís really not the case.

Chris and Larry:: So when you build an image from multiple negatives or from multiple images that youíve assembled, is that process additive or subtractive? Do you start off with one and then add another, or do you start off with a bunch of images and then say, ďLetís put these four together and see what they doĒ?

Jerry: Itís always additive process. Itís hard to think beyond two or three to begin with.

Iíll give an example. We were just invited to Seoul, Korea, for an opening at a beautiful photography museum over there. We had one day out into the countryside in one of their traditional towns and I had a chance to photograph. I shot about ten rolls of film while I was over there. When I came back, I processed those and the contact sheets then became the foreground for me as I had just been there and made those photographs. Then I started looking at different backgrounds, at combining things with them. Itís interesting because once I start doing it, I remember other negatives and things that might work with some of these things.

Now in the course of the last month, Iíve worked through most of those negatives. I donít really sense anything else that I can do with them at this point. But I can guarantee that five years from now, some of those things that Iíve rejected will find there way into other images.

Chris and Larry: How much time and experimentation takes place in the darkroom?

Jerry: Once Iím set up I need at least a six-hour block and preferably an eight to ten hour block to do what I do. Computer people have this advantage over the darkroom people by far.

Two weeks ago in Yosemite I shot this rushing water hitting a rock in a stream; it was like this wave in the middle of this river. Then I added a water background with strange clouds. So at the end of the day, I have this all set up. I have my chemistry. Iíve been testing with the different enlargers. Thatís when I want the Holy Ghost to tell me with a whisper in my ear, ďJust do three of thoseĒ. But as I age now, Iím 72, I think, ďIíll never print this again.Ē I have too much going on. I want to keep making new images.

I made ten prints and then in the middle of the night, Iím thinking, ďThat shape that this water bows up in is like the shape of an eye.Ē I hadnít taken the negatives out of the enlarger yet so the next day, I made 12 prints of the image with the rising water lighter and added an eye. I liked it better. From my point of view, if I can improve an image 2%, Iíll be back in the darkroom the next day.

Chris and Larry:: You mentioned the process of producing the work in the darkroom naturally creates an edition. In fact, even if you just pulled a negative out and put it back in, perhaps somebody with really sharp eyes would notice that there was a slightly different orientation to some of it. Do you then limit, or number editions created like that?

Jerry: This is a constant discussion in my life. All these gallery people now want me to limit editions. But you see, I like the idea that photographs exist as multiple originals.

Ansel Adams was a friend and I asked him back in the early Ď70ís about this issue. Now this is a guy that made 50,000 negatives and he told me back then that he had about 15 images that sold regularly Ė out of 50,000! And his most popular image, Moonrise, he admitted to making over 1,000 prints. Iíll bet he made at least 2,000 prints of it in all sizes.

Editions made sense when people worked with engravings where the plate wore down as prints were made. An early number of the edition had slightly better quality. But thatís not the case with photography.

To me, itís a false way of creating value. But there are people out there whose prices are going up and theyíre selling out editions and that sort of thing. Iím not in that school. I figure Iím the only guy thatís doing my prints. Once I go to the great darkroom in the sky, whatever prints exist, thatís it.

Chris and Larry:: Still, your initial print runs are small.

Jerry: Iíll just make six prints of something usually. Why make more? People say, ďIsnít it a problem to go back and reprint it?Ē Itís not a problem - in fact the second time Iím creating these images I can focus on the craft. The first time, youíre doing all the mental gymnastics about what does it mean. When I reprint something I feel that I end up with better prints than I did the first time.

Chris and Larry:: Do you ever scan your finished prints?

Jerry: I actually have people now that are scanning my work so there will be a record of almost everything, certainly my most popular images. In the old days if someone wanted to use an image I had to make copy prints, 8x10 glossies on resin coated paper. But Iím amazed how itís all done electronically now. Iím really blessed by having a wife with all of these skills.

Chris and Larry:: Do you think it is easier to create images using a computer?

Jerry: Itís equally hard and labor intensive to create an image on the computer as it is in a darkroom. Believe me.

Chris and Larry:: The elegance way you bring images together is impressive. A floating rock will have the right light and shadowing to match the background and other elements appear give it context. That makes even an implausible combination appear possible. Is your understanding of light and perspective intuitive, or is that part of the intellectual process?

Jerry: Its luck and intuition. Photographs in general have an inherent believability, and the overall impact of an image can keep people from noticing some of the slight discrepancies. Also, I prefer negatives shot on overcast days as they give you greater flexibility.

Chris and Larry:: Do you still go out and shoot a lot?

Jerry: I tend to shoot more when we travel. I taught workshops with Ansel in Yosemite for years, but really didnít get much time to explore the park. Later, when my wife and I visited we explored more, going on pack trips with other artists. I try to go every year. In September we go to the high country, renting tent cabins the last week before snow closes that part of the park. This year after Yosemite we went to San Francisco for a few days, and then to Korea. I shot 23 rolls on that trip.

Chris and Larry:: What kind of equipment are you using now?

Jerry: Iím currently using a Mamiya 7 and a Bronica GS1. I also have an old Bronica that Iíll use for the studio stuff but I want to carry the lightest equipment that will give me the biggest negative I can get and still use roll film.

Chris and Larry:: Have you shot large format or 35mm recently?

Jerry: No. The last time I shot 35mm, other than to make slides, would have been in the early Ď60ís. And when I first went out and taught workshops with Ansel, I found that I could shoot two rolls of film by the time those people had set up their view cameras. They were trying to do the zone system, which I think is overrated. Iíd much rather be emotionally involved.

Chris and Larry:: Would you have any advice for those who would like to pursue the fine art market and to use their photographic vision as a creative approach?

Jerry: I know a lot of really wonderful commercial photographers, and every one of them has their personal work in their desk drawer. Ryszard Horowitz is a friend who does major high-end commercial stuff. And believe me; heís certainly as creative as I am.

There are people like Duane Michaels and who can do both commercial and fine art work. I have a lot of respect for that. People that are only doing very personal fine art photography have to have some support system. If theyíre well connected with a gallery in New York, that might do it.

But the art world is constantly changing. There are all kinds of art movements that constantly come into vogue and then fade away. In photography we have the phenomena of the huge color prints done by people like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. Theyíre amazing to see, but again, thereís a point at which once every museum has one where does that trend go?

I just read an article in last Sundayís Times where these curators are talking. The one said itís sad how the emphasis is so much on new that many artists who are doing some of their better work at their mid careers or later careers are being neglected for the sake of constantly showing the new, young kid on the block.

In my own case, if you went to the Museum of Modern Art and said weíd like to see what you have by Uelsmann in the collection, theyíll have some work, but itíll all be from the Ď60ís. Thatís when I was new on the scene.

Chris and Larry:: But you are still working, producing new images all the time.

Jerry: To me, itís such a rewarding experience to be able to produce personal imagery and have this kind of visual myth emerge over a period of time, making images that can evoke a different perception of our world. We are unique in that we can invent these realities.

Chris and Larry:: And perhaps on some deeper level, even understand them.

Jerry: You bring up a very good point. The understanding can happen at a non-verbal, intuitive level. There are images I have seen done by students of mine whose names I do not remember, but I sure do remember those images, so theyíve made an impact on me.

Chris and Larry:: You taught for 38 years, how did you challenge students to be the most creative and effective photographers they could be?

Jerry: The best teachers answer questions with more interesting questions. That really sums it up. This is what Iíve learned after years of teaching that education is essentially a question raising business.

I expected students to be showing work on a regular basis, because thatís where a lot of the growth occurs, and to show work in process, because people are a lot less defensive. Many places emphasize theory, but I felt strongly that producing images was most important.

I tried to challenge people to define what they were doing, to try to articulate what they thought they were doing. I realize I canít create a verbal equivalent for my photographs, but weíve talked for over an hour about what I think Iím doing and they should be able to do that.

I taught graduate students for a lot of my academic career. At that level the students were really quite technically competent. Of course, technique is something you can teach a person because there are specific answers, but if youíre talking about a visual sort of aesthetic experience, thatís different.

I always thought of it as a kind of psychotherapy for which I wasnít trained. But itís important to always challenge accepted thinking, particularly your own.

Chris and Larry:: Your lifetime of work shows the influence of that approach.

Jerry: In the end, I aged but my students all remained the same age. That was something that kept me much more in touch with whatís happening in our culture and what was going on in the art world.

Contents of the Interview © 2007 Chris Maher and Larry Berman
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