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He experiments in a darkroom. She composes on a computer screen. Together, husband-and-wife artists Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor broke free of traditional notions of photography to create haunting, layered dreamscapes that challenge the medium's possibilities. Step inside their Florida compound to see their complementary work and contrasting processes—and find out how they overcame the early skepticism of their art-world peers to become luminaries in their field.
(music playing) And my teacher says, "Take a look at this guy's work. He's doing some amazing stuff in the darkroom." The tree's roots growing out of the building was the very first image that I saw. I was just stunned. How was this possible at all? How did he create that? So, I'm going into the darkroom in 1973 and trying to mimic Jerry Uelsmann.
His comfortable space is the darkroom and an analog world. We, at Adobe--I must say, I was involved. I can't believe this. We tried to lure him to the dark side. We took on a project years ago when Photoshop first came out. We took his negatives, his prints, we scanned them in, and we showed him this process. I don't think he ever touched the computer. I think we sort of guided him along. And he sort of nodded and appreciated the fact that we were showing him that there was another way.
Jerry Uelsmann: In the winter of 1996, Adobe called me and asked me if I would create an image for them, using Photoshop, to make a poster. And they sent with this equipment a guy, George Jardine, who was one of their, what they call digital evangelists. He set the whole thing up for us, and then I worked with him, and I had him initially scanning contact sheets to see how images could be built. While this is all going on, it's like me advising the guy who could do all the technical stuff, try to do this, try to do that, and he could do these different things, Maggie was watching all of this.
During the time that this three-day visit happened originally, from the Photoshop guy, George Jardine, who is the evangelist, I sat with him and with Jerry to sort of see what was happening, but I didn't operate the computer. Then when he left, I thought well, okay, so now I'll get out the book and check it all out, and I read all the stuff and figured out the Tool palette wasn't so much to learn because I think it was like version 2 or 2.5, whichever one first had layers in Photoshop.
I immediately loved it and tried to just learn everything I could about it. And the quality I could get with this scanner was great. I was playing with it and having fun with it, and I was trying different objects and different backgrounds and the idea that you could change the sizes of things. Russ: I clearly recall the first phone call I got from Maggie telling me, "Russ, I'm doing some experimenting here. I had some questions.
Excuse me, I've got a goldfish on my scanner flatbed." I get, what? What? Put the goldfish back in the bowl. So, she's experimenting in the early days with flatbed scanners, and she saw the dark side as possibilities. A person in a tintype photograph that I was never able to use before could be lifted out of their background and be used. But I couldn't see still how I could make finished prints.
People were not accepting digital work as much at that time. It wasn't until I started to see a few other artists doing IRIS inkjet prints. It wasn't glossy. It wasn't that slick shiny surface. It was like a whole new world, and I just loved it the minute that I saw that. (music playing) I like sitting at my desk. It's very comfortable.
It's all neat and tidy, and I have everything I need. And I like typing. I can check my email if I want to. I've just got like everything here that I need. In the darkroom, it was not fun for me; I didn't like the chemicals and all that stuff. And you know, you were kind of not able to multitask as much. It was just one thing I was stuck doing in there. When I used to do the collages that I set up in front of the camera, I had to make a decision right then, before I used my 4 x 5 film, about what was going to be in and what was going to be out. With this now in the computer, I can make changes as I go along.
At one point, the girl with the saw had a butterfly, a boat, the watermelon, a pelican, and a beetle. And I decided that I didn't really love all those things, and I had to kind of narrow it down. So, it's like building up and then paring away is kind of my process a lot. One of the things that always amazes me is the detail that I get. Some of the elements are scanned and some of them are just photographed with my little point-and-shoot camera. When I photographed that watermelon, I didn't love the image that I got of it, so the watermelon actually exists as a whole bunch of different layers of the watermelon.
In fact, the original watermelon was kind of lopsided and was a yellow watermelon, not a red one. So, you never know, as you're going along, how something's going to end up, and I like that aspect of working. I don't, you know, I don't start out with an idea and say, I woke up and had a dream of a girl holding a saw and a watermelon and now I will illustrate that. It never works that way for me. I really prefer this kind of more organic and playful way. I just enjoy the fact of interacting with the image.
I like the idea that they have a stage-like presence and partly using the floors that I use. Sometimes using curtains in the background for images kind of gives you the sense that this is a little play that's unfolding. There's a little drama happening here. And in a way, it almost reminds me of when I was a kid and I would play with the dollhouse with toys. You're bringing in different little characters and moving their furniture around and kind of just seeing what happens, until you reach a point where you're happy with it.
(music playing) Evon Streetman: Her work is just, in my opinion, it's layered, it's heavy, it's dark. And I think she has allowed it just to open a box of dreams, and she now feels comfortable to walk through it and to show it without being threatened.
And I think it's just provided her a richness beyond words. Ted Orland: Very few people followed directly in Jerry's path. When Maggie came into it and began working digitally, it looked different. And so she was able to make the art without being typecast as one of his followers.
Keith Davis: She's using a twenty-first century technology to deal, primarily, with photography's first generation. She's re-imagined something bigger and richer and more personal and more symbolically resonant from that source image. Jerry: That ability, with Photoshop and the experimentation she had been doing, the combination of those two created the body of work. Once, I think, she had the sense of that independent spirit, that's been an ongoing thing.
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