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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.
Jerry Uelsmann: The act of creating images is still, to me, very important, and I relish the opportunity and am honored by the fact that I have this environment where I'm allowed to make images. Maggie Taylor: Jerry and I really like images and we like objects, and that's the reason that we make art. (music playing) Our agenda is just to make stuff that we feel is well crafted and beautiful and has a resonance for us.
(music playing) Jerry: We're not functioning as commercial people, so we don't have to please anybody other than ourselves. And you know, I've said many times my goal is to amaze myself. You can't say, today, I'm going to amaze myself. You say, today, I'm going to start making marks on paper. That's the way it begins. And it's after the fact that you look back and think, well, wait a minute. (music playing) Maggie and I have to invent our realities.
I happen to use photography. Maggie happens to use the computer. You know, it comes from this deep commitment to things that you believe in, of the filtering through who you are, what your concerns are, that it's not based on the craft. From my personal point of view, if when someone looks at my photograph, if their first thought is, how did he make this? I feel I've failed. I don't mind that being the second question. I'm used to that.
But their first response should be some authentic "gee, this is weird," or "I had a dream like that." or "boy, that makes me feel lonely or happy." You know, it's an authentic human response. But photographers, in general, when they saw early work, they would talk in terms of the technique, but the technique is not the image; the technique supports the image. This is like your sense of craft. It's that kind of thing that opens up possibilities to create, in my case, visual phenomena that was unachievable before--certainly before Photoshop--but with traditional photography.
Phillip Prodger: There's a debate that's been raging in photography since almost the day of it's invention, about whether photography qualifies to be an art form or whether it is more of a commercial tool. And at the time that Jerry came on the scene, those debates were raging as loud as they ever have. Keith Davis: In the 1950s, photography was still dominated by a very sophisticated notion of using the camera to bring back vignettes of true worldly experience, as in the work of Cartier-Bresson, or the work of W. Gene Smith.
Peter Bunnell: You had an environment in which the photography community was trying to get over the heavy impress of social realism and photojournalism that developed in the '30s and during the war. But you had then the emergence of another whole generation and a whole different area of coverage, and probably the most exemplary person in that regard would be Ansel Adams. And obviously there's nothing more photographic than an Ansel Adams landscape. Keith: So, we have these interesting currents, this kind of classical mode of using photography to bring back the vignettes of real experience.
It's in that context that Jerry's work comes to the fore and really pushes this notion of the straight photograph into this entirely new arena. (music playing) Ted Orland: Jerry's rise into the art world is one of those amazing, almost unique stories.
The gist of it is that in 1960, or thereabouts, he was still a graduate student under Henry Holmes Smith, at the University of Indiana I believe. And five years later, he was having a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Peter: The Museum of Modern Art was the mecca. That was the place. There was one gallery, called Limelight, which was actually a coffee shop at Sheraton Square in New York, where in the back were four panels hanging from the ceiling, and that was it. That was it.
There was no 59th Street, 57th Street. Keith: John Szarkowski became curator at The Modern in 1962. John had a very powerful and distinct vision about what photography was all about. He saw photography as a uniquely special visual language. So, the program he put together beginning in '62 had enormous impact on how the field at large thought about the medium. Jerry: I called the photography of Museum of Modern Art and Szarkowski answered the phone.
I mean this wouldn't have happened today or later in his life, you know? And I said, "I'm Jerry Uelsmann and I teach at the University of Florida. I'm going to be coming to New York, and I'd like to be able to schedule an appointment to look at some of the photographs in your study room." It was there called their study room. He said, "Oh, yes." He says, "I know your work." And he said, "Well, why don't you bring some work with you when you come?" And I thought "oh, hey, this is for sure. I'm glad they do that." So, I went to New York and we sat down at a table, and I showed him my work.
And John--it won't make sense because people don't won't know ahead--John had this-- he is one of the slower talkers of America. And he loved to hold his glasses and go like this, and he'd look at these things. And you know, you just don't know what he's thinking, and he'd go to the next one, and like that and mmhm, make little sounds and all this kind of stuff. And you're sitting there. And finally, he turned, he says, "You know, I'd like to show this work here at The Modern." I'll tell you, my knees were ready to burst. I'm like, oh, my God.
Well, yeah, that would be nice, you know? It was a really wonderful experience in that once you could say that to people, that was something that they could recognize. "Oh, you had a show at The Modern?" And to this day, people find that on my credentials and that impresses them. (music playing) Keith: It was the peak. To have a one-person show at The Modern in those days was as much as any photographer could expect. There was no other place to go.
And especially given the nature of Jerry's work, the unconventional, non-purist nature of his work made, I think, that exhibition all the more significant. Peter: First of all, of course, it was extraordinary, the fact that John Szarkowski did it, because, in fact, John Szarkowski's attitude about photography, much more formalist, and much more straightforward. But he sensed in Uelsmann's work this incredible technique, which I then take it back to his early training at RIT. (music playing) We were at RIT, Rochester Institute of Technology, together.
RIT, at that time, was just becoming one of the major schools of photography. That is to say it had only offered a two-year associate degree, and so that would be then when you would graduate, so to speak, from a sound, technical basis. And I bring this up specifically in our context of Jerry because that's where he's at. I mean, he knows how to do it.
Jerry: Initially, when I went to RIT, I really thought I was on the two-year track to become a portrait photographer. They had the basic courses. Then they had these technical courses like sensitometry and photo chemistry. And to my surprise, I did well in those courses. I mean, at one point, I considered that maybe I wanted to be one of the tech majors. But there was something fascinating about developing film that had been exposed at random exposures and then taking a densotometer and plotting the curves for how the--I mean it's, it's complex science, but it was emerging as a science at that time.
On the other hand, when I realize that that particular program didn't involve taking photographs anymore--you had mechanically exposed paper and scientific things to deal with--I really focused on the portrait part. Keith: RIT, back in those days, was a technical school, but it was a unique technical school. Minor White's teaching up there for at least a while. Ralph Hattersley, other people like that, and the adjacent nature of the Eastman House there gave both this incredible technical background, and a real sense of history, a real sense of what the medium had meant to previous generations of picture makers.
And so that combination was pretty special. It was not something you could really get in perhaps any other program at the time. Peter: Minor White was a photographer who was brought in, literally, to teach first-year and last-year students. He had a broad awareness of the history of art, the history of art photography, and he was a significant contributing artist photographer in his own right.
Jerry: Many people had trouble because he was just so from another planet. I remember very vividly at one point he showed an image and he said, "Now, when I made this, the spirit came down." And I'm like, "I'm from inner-city Detroit, so excuse me. I want to know about this spirit coming down." You know, he'd give assignments. The one that sticks out very much for me, and that reminds me of him all the time, is doorways of ominous portent. And I'm going back to getting the dictionary out to look what that means.
But what it does, it gives you an insight into that photographs can function in a metaphorical way; they can function beyond just what is literally replicated within the image. One time I was showing him a contact sheet, and I'd had, for whatever reason, there was someone standing and there was a black, dark doorway, and then the next shot was somebody close up. It had a dark background. So anyway, I'm showing this contact sheet to Minor White, and we used to use these cardboard L's that, you know, you go around.
And he said, "Well, I think you should print this one." And I said, "Minor, that goes across the line. That's that other shot there." He said, "Well, that doesn't matter." So, the idea that you get permission to do that, what's wrong with that? So, you know, that let me explore having black backgrounds so that things could be--go from one frame to the another. You decide later what the frame would be. I mean, there's just so many little incidences like that that were little clues that I was ready to explore.
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