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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.
Peter Bunnell: It should be understood, of course, that Jerry, realizing, in fact, that there was probably little future in making personally expressive photographs, so he actually was enrolled in audio visual education at Indiana University, and it was then, through Henry Holmes Smith, that he was, in effect, discovered. Phillip Prodger: When Jerry left Indiana, he almost immediately went to the University of Florida, where he founded one of the first MFA programs in the country in photography.
Jerry Uelsmann: The teaching job, for many years, was my main support system. You know, people weren't buying photographs, and I'd get occasional fees for lecturing, but the more, I suppose, important, from my perspective, part of it was is constant interacting with young people. To me, this was the most formative time because suddenly, then, I'm surrounded by young artists and they're painters, sculptures, you know, we're having coffee every day, we're drawing on napkins, we're talking about our lives.
We pile into a station wagon that one of us has and drive straight through to New York, taking turns driving 24 hours so we can go see the latest shows that are going on. Yeah, but there was a kind of bonding and being part of the scene that was really important to me. Evon Streetman: I think one of the things I admired about Jerry tremendously was, at the time that we were teaching together, he had accrued a level of fame that was absolutely enviable among photographers.
And Jerry would bring back the bad reviews and read them to the graduate class. And for him, it was like, that was as much a part of his teaching as anything else. It's if you're going to be an artist, if you're really going to stick your neck out, if you're going to put it our there for the public, don't think for a moment that someone isn't going to occasionally stomp on it. You either have to have, or you have to develop, a tough enough hide that you can accept that and go right on with what you're doing.
When you think of how easily you can be maimed by someone's saying a comment that-- I had this happen once early in my career. This would have been in that same time period in my career, in the '60s, where I had done a lot of images that had foregrounds and backgrounds. And someone, quite innocently--I don't even remember who did it--they said, you know, you've done a lot of foregrounds and backgrounds, and that little thing bugged me for years. I'd go in the darkroom and I'd start on something--well, Jerry you've done a lot of foregrounds and backgrounds. And it took me a while to get the mental leap that made me realize that that was a form, and the analogy I make now is that it's like the haiku or the sonnet.
They're forms of poetry, but they don't limit the content. Because of the fact that I wasn't around traditional photographers, all the experimental things I did I got support for. (music playing) Ted Orland: Jerry had a way of orchestrating the darkroom as if he were doing a dance. Keith Davis: He was trying to expand the language of the medium, to make pictures that did justice to the truly broad potentials of what happens when light hits silver.
Photography is that primal, light hitting silver, and that's such a beautiful and sort of poetic thought. I think that he really loved that and wanted to see how far one could push that. If part of photography consists of that openness to experimentation, Jerry is just the perfect exemplar of a person who works that way. Peter Bunnell: They're about ideas that are different from simply transposing reality.
These would be shocking to people. They would be unusual to people. Jerry: I can remember in the early '60s going to New York and I'd see friends and other photographers up there and they'd look at my work, and the comment that just always threw me was they'd say, "well this this is interesting, but this is not photography." Excuse me, I'm in the darkroom for hours. I buy everything at the camera store.
I mean, what am I supposed to call this? Phillip: Jerry's photography plays on one of the very special characteristics of photography, and that is to be convincing, to show something, ostensibly, the way it really looks in life. And because Jerry inverts that and really makes things that are completely implausible come to life, his photography was seen as somehow dishonest. Keith: It seemed to violate expected notions about this truth-telling nature of the medium, and it did.
(music playing) Ted: I actually don't think the work was controversial. It was viewed as different. It was viewed as unique. I think it was just the sheer force of Jerry's vision that people could not ignore. (music playing) Keith: He was exploring the inherent nature of the medium in a way that no one else had done.
So, controversy is, to some degree, a sign of success. It's a sign that you have actually covered some new territory, that you have actually thought about the medium in a fresh way. (music playing) Phillip: There's an idea that comes out of photographic modernism, and even before, that somehow the photographer should know in advance the effects he or she is looking for when they click the shutter, so that they control every phase of the process and they're seeing what the viewer will ultimately see. Jerry changed all that.
He said, "Instead of previsualizing a photograph, we should postvisualize it." Instead of looking at the negative as a final result, he looks at it as a departure point. You start with the negative, and that becomes the basis for improvisation and experimentation going forward. Jerry: The dominant aesthetic, well, what we learned or we thought was the dominant aesthetic--it probably still is--is the decisive moment.
That was coined by Cartier-Bresson. I tried to imply that those same decisive moments can occur in the context of the darkroom, that the darkroom was essentially a visual research lab. If you just do the mental gear shifting required to think that way, because I've had decisive moments when suddenly, whoa, that tree will blend to that building. Now, that's a decisive moment. When you think about the whole world of painting, where we're talking about similar use of materials-- paint, oil on canvas, whatever-- think of the breadth of the imagery that occurs there.
And when we're looking at paintings, we're not talking about, well, Leonardo had a different kind of paint that he was using. You know, it was his vision. It's the celebration of the vision that we're talking about. (music playing)
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