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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) Jerry Uelsmann: At this point I thought this was a finished print. But during the night, it occurred to me, that how would it work if instead of the chair occurring in the clouds here, that it came down and emerged out of the figure? So, in order to do that, I have to take a piece of paper and make a little drawing of where that figure falls, and then remove the chair part, which was this part and the other enlarger, down to now it's going to touch the head.
It's a subtle difference, but I do think, from a psychological point of view, it does alter the image. It's a huge change from having him see something in the distance as opposed to having this grow out of his head. I want to try another version. I'll do it where I'll make the figure dark. This truly didn't occur to me till last night that--I don't know why I didn't think of having this.
And I don't know if it's going to work, but right now, it looks pretty interesting. I used to always listen to music. I love the blues. And now these things get so complex that I have to remember what I have to do at each enlarger, and so I don't get to play music until I'm doing the final wash and other stuff. Now before, this had just one exposure like that, but I'm going to give it several that will make the figure almost black.
I can also make that chair totally black and the figure totally black. One more there. It's interesting, of the few places where they still teach darkroom photography, I've talked to high school teachers and said, yeah, we have all these kids that are working with computers and suddenly, this magic in the darkroom, they get--they just love it. So that still has that kind of quality, but it's not a competitive sport.
I don't like it when people think, oh, they tell me oh, the darkroom is much better. Don't you think it's better? It's not better; it's different. It's my way because I've been doing it a long time, but if I were younger, I definitely would be working with a computer. Now, what I'd like to try is that black chair and keep the guy transparent. But somehow, I don't know why I'd rejected the totally black chair, but to me, at this point, I like that.
I think, you know, this is for sale. No, who cares. That's the last thing I think about. I don't know. It probably works better with the black figure, because that then becomes a continuous part of the chair. It looks a little hokey though, in the way he's standing there without a shadow. I'm going to try one where I simply have the black at the top and then the figure fades off toward the bottom.
I could burn in that rock, just make it a little darker. This area here gets a little bit too much maybe but there are several ways I can do this. This now is just printing the figure the way it is, but if I block up here with a card--and this is something you just learn over the years of having done this-- I can make those feet fade off.
We're going to try this. Let's see what happens here. This one better be perfect. We interrupt the history of photography for a special announcement. And that rock does look a little darker than it is here, coming out of it. I could burn in the sides a little more. I like where the eye holds the eye in by having like the bottom darker.
I didn't think to do the sides. I'm going to have to do one more. Just one more, that's what they always say when they take pictures. We could use this for an Excedrin headache commercial. This is just a matter of darkening the edges there, just to hold the eye toward the center. And then we're going to make an overkill here a little bit for the bottom.
All right. Now, our clouds, which, this is the one I don't have to do anything, other than put it in the paper and meditate on, why do I do this? What does it mean? Now, this is looking good. You see we had to try those others to get to this. It's not a magic bullet. Whether it's an authentically worthwhile image, time will determine that, I suppose.
But this is the kind of thing you can only think of while you're doing it. That's why, you know, I always when I taught graduates, I mean, they'd be talking about things they were going to do, and I'd say, excuse me, you've got to do it. You gotta physically get in there and try these things because that's where the really creative process begins. The subtle differences are, you see the lightness to the edge there and the darkness there. This is just holding the eye in so that visually, this is where you begin to address that.
And I darkened the whole rock area around him. I like that. It's the best of the day. (music playing) On one hand, you do have feedback from supportive friends that are close by, but you need this quiet time, this time where you're by yourself. You're doing this. You got to have conditions conducive for something to happen. So, until I went in the darkroom and literally started making marks on that paper, the art wasn't going to happen without that process.
(music playing) Maggie Taylor: You have to make bad images to make good images. You know, in a way, you have to work through making ones that you don't love. (music playing) This is something I've been working on. I scanned in all these beetles that I really love from old books.
They're old, like, 1740s illustrations of beetles. And what I've been trying to do with them is work out a way that they could be a frame for somebody. And I've tried a variety of different people behind them and different things behind them. And I'm kinda liking a landscapey background behind them. And I had these words that were in another image that I thought I'd try here, that it kind of reminds me of like a long time ago when I used to use little phrases in my photographic images.
And so this is like, now what? It did have a question mark, but I didn't like the question mark. But I've got the words in there, and I'm thinking, I like that. I like the interaction of the beetles with the words. And I like this kind of suggested landscape background there, with just a hint of a cloud and a little bit of some trees. The problem now is, by mistake, one day when I was turning on and off these layers, I turned off the beetle layer. And once the beetles are off, I actually like the image better.
So, that means this is another beetle failure, like the beetles are going to have to get out of there and go into some other image. So, I scanned in a ton of little twigs and I also used a ladder, which I could cut and paste and make the text. Once I got this text in, I thought well, I kind of like it, but it's going to need more branches or vines or something coming out of it. I don't want to make it look like it's growing there, but I want to make it look like stuff people just freshly found and cut to make this text.
So, then I'm looking around outside the yard and thinking, what do I have that has a good sort of a viney look? And that's why I scanned in some ferns and a few little root pieces, thinking I could cut those and morph them and make them into just little things that will come out of the text. And you know, I don't know what's going to happen with this, but I mean, this I had just put in here and I'm not sure. But I'm gong to take this one little fern and make it onto own separate layer.
I want it to look like they're growing on the logs. I don't know. Hm. I don't know if I'm going to like this. I also scanned in this little root. It reminds me of like a nice old tree branch. So, I think it could work, if I take little bits off of it and put them here and there.
But now that I look at it, the root is way better than the fern pieces. This is more what I wanted, just to make little, tiny bits. And this is something that only someone looking really, really closely at this image will ever really see. Or, you know, if it's blown up to a really large size print, they would see it. But I kind of like the idea that I'm just going to have these little, tiny things there. Yes, this is what I wanted. Little tiny things.
And then after that, fixing up the landscape a little bit more. Oh, there, I just changed that roots blend mode to Multiply and it looked a lot better. Oh, I like that, now that it lines up and it's just got little bits coming up. That is not bad. If I show this to Jerry, I don't know if he'll like it, but I like it. Jerry: Okay. Ooh, that's not bad. I think that.
Maggie: I don't want the trees so close to the mountains. I mean I'm not saying, well, that's not bad either, look at that, Jerry. The mountains go way up. Jerry: Your eye, you know, this area has to be. Maggie: There's a sheen area over there that is not fully worked out. Sometimes it's better to look at it like this. Jerry: Yeah, that's better if you can add that to that other version of the overall tone. Maggie: So, if I just put a mask on that. That was light coming in from the museum window under that painting is what it was.
Jerry: As Maggie's skill has improved, I learned that technology that she's doing, although I'm jealous that I can't do it. So I can tell her, put that thing around there with the-- Maggie: Box, put the box. Jerry: Then put that box around there so you can stretch it out down here. And I can say things based on what I know she's capable of doing, but I don't know what, you know, it involves her remembering 4,000 layers or all that kind of stuff.
But initially, you could just use the photo rooms and burn that in or darken this, but there's so many more choices here. I'm aware of things she can do to change perspective, how she can isolate things, and darken things, sharpen things, there's a concept. I can't sharpen things beyond what they are on the negative. So, I have, I don't have the correct terminology, but I've watched her do this enough and become insanely jealous. Maggie: You're good at knowing what can be done.
You just don't necessarily know the steps to get there. And so, that's one thing that's kind of frustrating. Sometimes when I'm trying to fix something, because you're on to--you're telling me do A, B, C . And I'm like, well, I want to get A perfect before I go on, and it takes time. Jerry: It is not uncommon for us to have, where she'll want me to come look at something. I make suggestions, and she constantly says, I can't do that. If I do it one more time it's going to degenerate or whatever. She goes on and on about this. And then. Maggie: I can't do it, can't do it, can't do it. Jerry: Yeah, I can't do it. And then I leave, thinking, you know, hey, I'm trying to help and then I find out that she eventually does.
Maggie: A day later I do it. Here's what that little baby doll image was, was this. Jerry: Oh, God. Maggie: You don't like him? Jerry: Well, I like him, but he does, in the silhouette, he reads as a tail. Maggie: That's good, right? Jerry: No. Do you want him to have a tail? All right, whatever. Maggie: I mean it's more interesting than your magazine people. Jerry: Now, wait a minute. It's not a competitive sport. Jerry: This image really sucks. Maggie: Yeah. Jerry: I tell you, it's getting. Oh my god.
Maggie: It's better than your half-naked yoga man. Jerry: Hey, that, he's not a silhouette. It's meditative. Maggie: There he is, right. Jerry: Because when he's back, it's like he's pointing to the sign almost. Maggie: Mhmm. And you kind of can't tell if that's a tail or if he has a backpack or what, but I sort of like that about him. Jerry: All right. Maggie: Go back to your own little studio. Jerry: All right, yeah. Jerry: You won't get her in the darkroom.
She used to say it smelled bad. Maggie: It smells like mildew in there. Jerry: Well, that's part of the process.
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