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Focusing on a spiritual medium

For artist Jerry Uelsmann, photography opens a window not only into our everyday lives but into the world beyond them.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published February 19, 2006


Jerry Uelsmann's mysterious and meticulously collaged photographic images have been prized for decades by private collectors and museums around the world. A retired University of Florida professor who lives in Gainesville, Uelsmann was a student of legendary photographer Minor White and a frequent contributor to Aperture, the prestigious photography journal White helped found and edited for 16 years.

An exhibition celebrating Aperture's 50th anniversary is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, which has several Uelsmann prints in its permanent collection. On Thursday, Uelsmann, 71, and his wife, photographer Maggie Taylor, will discuss their art at the museum.

In a recent telephone interview, Uelsmann talked about White, Aperture, his exclusion from the Aperture exhibition and the future of his medium.

How old were you when you first met Minor White?

I was either 19 or 20. Minor White had just been hired at the Eastman House (in Rochester, N.Y.), which had become a museum. Minor had taught out in California, not extensively, but the Rochester Institute of Technology hired him too, which in many ways was a very unusual choice since he was not very technically oriented, but they were developing a four-year program from a two-year program. I was in kind of a special group that were first issued our bachelor of fine arts degrees in photography. We were heavily influenced by Minor. How so?

Instead of having people giving us sort of commercial-oriented assignments in portraiture, Minor talked about the camera as a metamorphosing machine, the idea that the photograph could represent more than the literal subject matter. He used to tell us that one should photograph things not only for what they are but for what else they are. And it was just a totally revolutionary way of thinking about photography, and the concept that photography could be a very personal means of self-expression. And that was very unique at that time.

What year was that?

That was probably '55 or '56.

And White was editing "Aperture" at that time.

Oh, yes. Aperture started just a few years earlier.

Was he a good teacher?

He was for me. Some people found him to be too . . . how can I say it . . . too mystical. I think he had a sort of a charismatic, spiritual presence. I had great respect for him and he was very tolerant of me in many ways. I remember him showing some of his own photographs in class. He did these sequences and he just said, at one point, "When I made this, a spirit came down." And I raised my hand and said, "Excuse me. What was this spirit coming down? What is that about?" I couldn't relate to that concept. And he would try to explain these kind of inexplicable moments when things come together in a synchronistic way, not necessarily consciously or intellectually understood. I've been around long enough now that I've experienced that phenomena. I don't know if I'd use those terms - a spirit coming down - but I certainly have had moments when things have come together and you don't realize it till later when you're looking at contact sheets or something like that. You realize that you weren't intellectually conscious at the time of what was going on.

You can work for months on the technical creation of a print but the end result has a spontaneous quality to it.

Right. I agree with that, but there is still what people don't realize . . . They talk about the decisive moment in terms of the camera freezing a moment of life in flux, and I have tried to suggest to people that same kind of phenomena can occur within the darkroom experience where suddenly things come together and it just feels right. Every year I produce over a hundred images, and at the end of the year, I try to find 10 that I like and it's sometimes hard. And those are the few times when it came together at another level.

You have been a contributor more than once to "Aperture."

Yes, my first major monograph was through Aperture. It just opened all kinds of doors back in 1966-67 and it also served as a catalog for a major exhibit I had at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Michael Hoffman (the editor who succeeded White in 1965) also became the curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which created a nice synergy for photography exhibitions like yours.

Well, Michael . . . what can I say (laughs)? I don't know how much to reveal. You know, I thought one of the questions someone should ask me is why aren't I in that show (the Aperture show at the Museum of Fine Arts)?

I was going to ask you . . .

Well, if you want a short answer, Michael Hoffman was, bless his soul, he's no longer on this side of the grass (Hoffman died in 2001), but he was controversial in some ways. For example, he never returned many of the prints of mine that were used for publication.

So you and Hoffman fell out and you were excluded from the exhibition that's here in St. Petersburg now?

Well, let's just say I'm notable by my absence from it (laughs). I can't say enough good things about when Aperture published my monograph . . . my profile was raised a thousand times and it opened all kinds of doors. In retrospect, you know, I was naive at the time and I'm very grateful that happened, but Aperture copyrighted everything in their name, and the images should have been copyrighted in my name. I never made any money off that (Aperture) book. They sold it in vast quantities but, you know, I was in academia and I started at the university at $5,000 a year and, to me, just to have the profile and the recognition was really overwhelming because my photography was very controversial back then and the Aperture monograph was really a support that I needed.

I do feel I should be in that show because if you look at the magazine it wasn't just an issue where there were a few of my photographs. There were issues of Aperture where there'd be like 12 photographs. My monograph had to be one of the first issues where it was totally devoted to one photographer.

The other thing that, of course, has happened in recent years is there is a kind of emphasis, certainly in the New York museum world, on work that has what people consider more of a social awareness, documentary quality to it.

My work tends to be much more psychological, spiritual, and it's a lot less conceptually based than a lot of the things that are going on.

Talk about the medium itself, more than just the thematic shifts. You're a darkroom photographer. Do you feel like a threatened species?

Kodak, obviously, is out of the business and some of the others, so it is becoming increasingly difficult but I do not believe that the materials will disappear because we've had in the last 15-20 years a great revival in what are now considered antique processes.

And certainly there are more papers available in Europe but I do think the costs will go up. I just two weeks ago ordered four different kinds of paper to experiment with to see how close they come to the paper I have been using, which I can no longer get.

I do not see photography in its traditional form as some sort of competitive sport. I think the computer is a wonderful tool and the ultimate agenda is to come up with an image that resonates, first of all, with yourself and then, hopefully, with an audience whether it's ink on paper or silver gelatin prints.

I love the darkroom and I plan to stay in it as long as I can, but my wife's a digital artist and I love the way ink on paper looks, and I have no bias against that.

But it is physically a different process and I guess I feel that the darkroom is sort of intricately related to my creative process. It's not like sitting in front of the computer, which I could not handle for hours, which my wife does for incredible hours to build her images. And I've got water working and there's a sort of alchemy to it, and the dim lights and all this sort of stuff.

When you were going to school, was photography seen as a viable profession?

Well, certainly not fine arts photography. There were so few people that respected it. Aperture was the only journal that dealt with photography in a serious way.

You had people writing about the meaning of photography, essays on how to read photographs. I can name all kinds of photographers that I first became aware of through Aperture who now are major figures. It was a tremendous enterprise.

 

-- Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.