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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.
Evon Streetman: I look back, and I always felt there was a certain unsettled disquiet in Jerry. He never seemed, never seemed totally at ease. I don't mean he was uncomfortable with people, certainly not. But he never seemed totally comfortable with himself, in himself. There was always something that was missing he was always looking for, and he found it. (music playing) Maggie Taylor: I had a pretty typical midwestern upbringing that didn't necessarily involve anything with the arts per se, but lots of sports and outdoor activities.
(music playing) And for me, reading was fabulous. I remember asking my mom to take me to the public library in St. Pete, Florida, so I could get more science fiction books on a regular basis. (music playing) And I was just allowed to watch tons of t.v. All my free time when I was at home, I watched television, hours and hours every day, all kinds of sitcoms and reruns and Star Trek.
(music playing) And I felt like these were kind of my friends; in some way they were people that I was interested in and they had stories to tell that were interesting, so I wanted to kind of be part of their family or be in their world in some way. And I also got interested in drama while I was in high school, being in plays. The idea of simply playing a totally different role, just getting out of yourself and being something totally different and trying be convincing at it.
But I was never particularly good at theater. I just liked participating in it. When I went to Yale, as I was going through the application process I thought, here's a school that basically does feature a good drama school. Once I got there, all of my roommates were very interested in singing and dancing and participating in singing groups and theatrical things, and I realized I don't have those skills at all. I can't sing or dance.
I am not up to doing this. But at the same time, it opened a lot of other possibilities, because then I got to think about, wow, what else, what would I want to major in? And luckily for me, at that time, you had several years to decide. And I had a lot of friends who were taking other classes, like photography. And in particular, I had two friends who were taking beginning photography and telling me how interesting it was to go into the Art and Architecture building, which was kind of a mystery to me, and go down into the basement and develop pictures.
And I went into my first photo class basically thinking, this will be an easy credit. It will be the opposite of all my other classes with heavy reading materials. And I can just, you know, wander around with a camera. So, I borrowed a camera from my father for that semester and I wandered around taking pictures of people. But for me, it was terrifying to walk around with a camera and should I ask the people if I can take their picture or should I just take their picture? Do I want to be in their face or not? And after maybe one semester of doing that and coming up with horrible images of people, I realized I might be better suited to landscapes, or doing portraits of buildings.
And even though I was majoring in philosophy, I was most interested in my photography classes and I kept taking photography every single semester. At that point I really realized I wanted to go to graduate school in photography. And there were several places I was considering. But the fact was, my parents were living in Florida, and to get the in-state tuition in Florida was a fraction of the cost of any of those other places. By the time I came to Gainesville to have an interview, I was basically just really nervous about the whole thing.
I just wanted them to accept my work and think it was good. Evon: It was just a little stiff. It was a little controlled. It was just like a straight shot right to the target, with no left and no right, very little room for other interpretations. I don't think she trusted all of her psychological and intellectual capacity at that particular time. We had the Graduate Record Exam and her scores were off the charts.
Rarely, we had never had an art student in the whole history of the Art Department had those kind of scores. In a very short amount of time, you could sense that this was a sincere, articulate, intelligent person that was not here just to do the same thing, that they were open to the expression of ideas. The whole mood of the studio disciplines here at the University of Florida were the most joined and eager, like to participate, to give and take.
We would actually send students to other departments for a semester of study in printmaking. Possibly, depending on what you were doing with your photographs, we were really trying to find the niche that the student most aptly belonged in. I was just trying my best to find my own path, I guess, and find my own voice in this, and thought that I should experiment with the printmaking, the color, some of Jerry's darkroom techniques.
But I wasn't as happy with the printmaking as a process. You can take a printmaking class and do photo etching. So, it was a little scary for me at first, because I'm not so technical, and I had never done anything like printmaking, with the acid and the metal and the, you know, all kinds of monoprints we would make, and things like that. So, these were family snapshots that I started using to make a little photo etchings from. That was actually my father. This is my grandfather, for some reason was on the floor barking like a dog.
These were all kind of experimental things that I was trying to do, just to kind of, you know, see what the other possibilities were. And the idea that these were linked to me more personally was kind of a novel thing to me at that point. So, then I started really playing with things more that were old toys and things from my own past. So, this was some of the work I did just a little bit after that that kind of shows that I was trying to break away from doing really straight photographic work.
Some were with sun, out in the yard. Some were in my apartment, with just a few really simple clamp-on lamps. I didn't have any nice equipment or anything. Most of them had a kind of personal story. This is like a family snapshot that has paint on it and then set other snapshots on top of it. These were all things that had some connection to this story for me, and I wanted to kind of bring them all together but then rephotograph it so you have sort of all these layers, but it's all, like, on one photographic surface there.
Everybody was so happy to have something different. Frankly, they were also tired of seeing my suburban scenes I think that they were like, well, this is great. We love it. This is so different for you. (music playing) Jerry Uelsmann: Her work, certainly when she had her MFA show, was very, very distinctive and very engaging, and a lot of people responded.
Maggie's work began to develop more imagination and fantasy and richness of ideas. I think she had to admit how damn bright she was, and she began to use it. I was thinking that within two years, I could get a masters degree and then get a teaching job somewhere, so it was kind of like anywhere in the country that they will have me, I will go and teach photography.
And then I'll also have time to make my photography, so that would be the support system for making my art would be my income as a teacher. (music playing) By the time I finished, two years later, I actually probably felt more confused and felt like the world of photography is much broader than I had realized, and it's basically part of the whole contemporary art scene. And maybe I'm not going to go teach anywhere; maybe I'll just make images. And I saw the possibilities of being an artist in a much broader sense.
(music playing) I thought, what I'd like to do is go on and work with some other objects, not necessarily all my own family snapshots, but maybe some other things that I could collect or create. So, I found that it was kind of interesting to go to these flea markets around the area, in North Florida-- antique stores too, but mostly flea markets. And I would buy all kinds of bits and pieces broken things. So, these were like little plastic horses that somebody's dog had chewed up.
And I took old books and whatever else I found and just started to kind of build things. And this was kind of my way of working for, really, about ten years. And it was totally fabricated imagery. And at the time, like a lot of the work that I was seeing in the magazines and work that was being reviewed in New York, was staged or fabricated photography. So, this definitely seemed like the way to go. It was just like, why take your camera out into the real world when you can fabricate something in the studio that's more meaningful to you? But it was a very frustrating way of working sometimes, and I went through quite a lot of film, 4 x 5 film.
I'd go in the darkroom and load twenty or thirty sheets of film and go out and set this up, and it's late in the day and the shadows are kind of changing rapidly, and so I was constantly reshooting. And I wanted to try to include stuff from my own sort of organic Florida surroundings. So, we have tons of these wonderful little green tree frogs, and the idea that I could have them be included as characters in the images was kind of interesting to me. Or the fish from my fish tank, in what I sort of thought of as a photographer's studio there, like a little diorama set up for them to pose in.
The problem was these things didn't always cooperate. What I thought I was gonna get was the fish higher up and looking right at me with a nice bulging eye and looking really beautiful. What I got was kind of the fish not being terribly happy and waiting to go back in his fish tank. So, I couldn't exactly get him to pose the way that I wanted. I'd have to go back on another day and reshoot., and I just wasted tons and tons of film. So, it became a more and more frustrating way of working, really, when I wanted to use things that were ephemeral.
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