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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.
(birds chirping) Jerry Uelsmann: We're definitely, every day somehow, involved in our art and other life issues of maintaining the house and the dogs and all that stuff. But we're basically committed to making art. (music playing) Maggie Taylor: For the most part, we work really independently. A long time ago, Jerry added onto the house where we live and added a studio, and that was before I lived there.
But he added a whole separate building that has his darkroom in it. And I used to share that with him for about ten years. But we just have so much stuff. We're collecting things to use in our work. So, about seven or eight years ago, I guess, we decided that instead of building another little studio space, just buy a small house nearby. Jerry: Hey, buddy. Are you locked up then? Yes, you are. You've been making art over here? I like the basic image of the girl, but the stuff that you've got, the linear stuff going around the head, doesn't do much for me at this point.
It really helps me to get input from other people whose opinions I respect. You know, do you like the girl with the blue dress or the red dress? Or, do you like this background or that background? And sometimes I listen and sometimes I don't. I need that kind of outside input though, to help me make decisions. Jerry: I can do basic email, but then the computer will always ask me questions I can't understand. That's what I don't like. Titles. So, this is the kind of thing she'll send me.
So for this image, we have two titles. This is the semi-final version. Options. Nocturne or Small Boat Waiting. And there may be a second version of the image. No, not there. And I told her I like Small Boat Waiting. And there's a different image she had been working on, and I love this image. I think this her best new image. It's just so bizarre. It's just, I don't know what about it. It's like, how could someone think of that, and that saw there, amazing. And there was more choices here.
The title could be The Lesson, The Gift, The Reminder. And I picked--I like The Lesson. Image-wise, I always have prints for her to look at. I don't, I can't suddenly send her a scan, so it's usually on her way back or she's doing something. And I say, "I want you to look at these things," and then I'll spread out the versions that I've completed. And then, you begin to realize that there truly is more than one right answer as you evolve these things.
I'm going into the studio-- my studio, not Maggie's. I've been in this place 25 years at least. I don't remember the exact date. These are my larger prints. I make a smaller number of them, but I like to have them in the larger size. This is from 1982, '83, and these are matted and hopefully ready to send off to a show. On some days, it just feels--it's a more interesting day for me to just do this kind of work.
I can have the blues playing loudly on my stereo system and just matting a few prints, with the hope that someday someone else will want them. Here's a floating boat, another floating boat. This is what people forget, that years ago, the landscape jobs out west, they literally had mules carry their equipment, but they had glass plates. There's stories of one mule falling down, coming down a canyon and all the plates broke.
It was a much more challenging kind of thing to do. This is a key room. This is sort of where it all begins. I spend a lot of time out here you know, looking at contact sheets that represent, you know, everything that's on the role of film. And I'm collecting, in essence, pieces of things, things that I respond to in the world. It's just very helpful to have them, and not so much in the structured order.
Like this was done in 1996. And I know that was done, I think, in Ireland. Usually I know. The models that I've used, I usually photograph against a white background because I could introduce that figure standing somewhere. This was photographed in 1986, in May, and I have file numbers so I can find those negatives. Tthe figures jumping, these became my flowing figures, and that was just a sheer chance.
I had a photograph the model against a white background, and I won't be able to find that one. And there were two shots left on the roll, so I said, "Jump," so she jumped and I got her jumping with flash. That print proof sheet existed for years, and one day it happened to be placed, like this, and then there was another proof sheet let's say like this. And you know, I came out and I looked, now wait a minute. If I print that person horizontal, I can have her floating above that ground there.
So, one of my earliest pictures with the floating figure involved a figure floating over a shore. I could take any two contact sheets and go in the darkroom and make something, but the point is you're still trying to critically come up with something that resonates with you. There are levels of understanding that you can't articulate, that you can't describe in a logical, sensible, reasonable way that have value, that they are powerful, evocative images that stay with you in your mind.
And I mean that's the hope at the end of the process that you get--begin to approach that. But because of the way it works mentally, we can't think it through to that point. It's much more intuitive and learning to trust the fact. I mean, I don't like knowing the fact that I produce a hundred images a year and there's only ten that I end up at the end of the year liking, yet at the same time, I also know that unless I did that hundred, those ten aren't going to be there.
There's a small boat, and this was photographed, this has this like white area of water behind it. I drew that on there because I got another idea for it. So, I could easily put that dark cloud and put it closer above that. This is how I get my initial ideas. I'll show you something else. I don't know how readily you can see it. So, you could take this, put this like this, and then you can actually get some sense of what that would look like, that lone boat.
I could try to make a dark hole that replicates the shape of the boat occurring within the sand. I don't know. That's the key, what I'm saying there. I don't know. Once I print this, sometimes that first thing is enough. I mean, there's just something special about this boat with this dark flow, and it looks believable. It'll look believable in the finished print. And you know, where you have to be concerned is you don't want to talk yourself out of doing this because it looks familiar.
It's just, you have to accept the fact that three days later, after you've spent time making these things, you might reject it because it somehow fell below what you had hoped would happen. But if I don't do it, I'll keep having it there bothering me. Because I do think this could go somewhere. I don't know where it would go, but that would be the starting point. There is--it's very interactive. Just as Maggie's, you know, interacts with what she seeing and what she can do with it and knowing the options. Maggie: I get inspired by objects the most: antique photographs, odds and ends at a flea market.
All the time in the back of my brain I'm thinking about what I might do with this or that that I find and coming up with some ideas for the next things I might work on. I thought I'd stop in and see if you had different new photographs or anything down here, or other stuff. (music playing) Maggie: St. George right here. Okay. Male speaker: It's over here.
Maggie: Are these palms? Oh, look at that. Male speaker: I don't know when we're going to see this palm tree. Maggie: Hm. Kind of neat little boat. I know that I'm not going to be inspired to do something new, sometimes, unless I have new materials to work with. And the ones I like to collect usually are daguerrotypes or ambrotypes, and the ambro- types are the ones that are on glass like this.
But I just sort of gravitate toward this particular time period and the clothing and stuff; it has a kinda dreamlike quality to me. Most of the time they kind of morph, in my mind, into the people that I end up making them be in my images. I hardly ever know their names, and I hardly ever know the exact dates of them. So, they're really separated from their own past, and then I just sort of take them on as characters that I work with. I don't know what I'm going to use them for at the time, but I can scan all these different things in and then after the fact, play with them.
Usually, I'll scan between five and ten different things and play around with them. I have this whole drawer full of stuff here that's like some stuff I could scan, and a lot of this I have scanned at least once or twice before. But this is kind of like my handy drawer of possibilities, if I need something. And it's not that it's all that organized, really. But it's more organized, I think, than Jerry's contact sheets are. So, I kind of know where things are.
I recently decided, just opening this up, that this little saw was interesting-looking. It had been part of a mish-mash of things over here that were all really small, and I was looking around one day through it, and I came upon it again and so that's how I happened to think, oh, you know, that has a pretty interesting quality. And for a miniature thing, it's pretty detailed. So, you know, I just put it right on the scanner and tried it and right away loved the way it looked. So, I didn't know at the time I was going to definitely use it. In fact, I was just kind of scanning random objects that day.
I know she's got like tons of damage on her and stuff, but I can fix that. And she has really relativity sharp eyes, and here you can even see her fingernails are just so perfect. There's no blur at all. She must have been able to hold very still with her hand like that. And a little bracelet and oh, she's great. I'll definitely be able to do something with her. But it's going to be a long process to try to fix her up. And that's okay. If I have a day where I don't really know what else I want to work on, I might just sit there for the whole day and totally fix her up.
And then during the process of doing that, usually I'll think about some idea for her. Once I'm sitting at my desk working, I tend to come up with things. You know, when I'm sitting there, as I'm doing something very routine, like retouching an image, I remember something from a dream or something I've seen elsewhere. Then that kinda filters into the work in some way. But if I'm not sitting there at my desk, nothing can happen.
And for Jerry he has to be in the darkroom, working. Otherwise, nothing can happen. (music playing)
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