Jerry Uelsmann, creator of surreal images, dies at 87

Jerry Uelsmann, a photographer who ingeniously used darkroom techniques to manipulate his black-and-white images into surreal montages that many years anticipated the digital image editing revolutionized by Adobe Photoshop, died on April 4 in Gainesville, Florida. He was 87 years old.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his son, Andrew.

Mr. Uelsmann’s dreamlike imagery seems to ignore the laws of gravity and rationality, much like René Magritte’s paintings.

In Mr. Uelsmann’s imaginative alternate universe, boats float above clouds and waterfalls. Hands that transform from a tree trunk gently hold a bird’s nest. Five empty chairs magically placed on a pond face a fifth chair, as if holding a meeting. A naked young woman whose lower body is just a hazy mist hovers above the mountains.

“The primary creative gesture for most photographers was when they clicked the shutter,” said Mr. Uelsmann (pronounced YULES-man) told the Smithsonian magazine in 2013. “But I realized that the darkroom was a visual research laboratory where the creative process could continue.”

To decide which images he would combine, he combed through piles of his contact sheets from years past.

“I’m starting to see how the images can fit together,” he said in an interview in 2011 with the New York Times Lens blog. “There is a kind of cognition. I’m going to work on an image, and I’ll remember a photograph I made 20 or 15 years ago. I have to find the negative that I think could fit into this context.

Working in his darkroom with no less than seven enlargers, each holding a different negative, Mr. Uelsmann moved a sheet of photographic paper from enlarger to enlarger. He printed a different element from each negative, creating a photomontage that could be filled with paradox, wonder and symbolism. Sometimes it took days to make an impression that satisfied him.

“If I have one ultimate goal,” Mr. Uelsmann told The Times, “it is to amaze myself.”

Philip Gefter, a photography critic, wrote in an email that Mr. Uelsmann “artfully juxtaposed his very precise photographs of real objects, creating unusual incongruities with surreal effects”.

“His intentions were entirely symbolic and based on psychological archetypes of a Jungian nature,” Mr. Gefter added.

Mr. Uelsmann’s work has been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe. In New York it was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition “Pretend: manipulated photography before Photoshop”, who traveled to other cities. One of his montages on the show was of a small Victorian office with its ceiling open to the sky and, on a desk, a small man walking on a map. (Mr. Uelsmann had photographed the man walking on a beach.)

Mia Fineman, who curated the exhibition, said of Mr. Uelsmann in a telephone interview: “He was outside the mainstream of photographic art, which really had a fixation on the purity of photography. right and the idea of ​​previewing – that step where the photographer needs to be able to see the final print the moment you click the shutter, he went against all of that.

Jerry Norman Uelsmann was born on June 11, 1934 in Detroit. His father, Norman, owned a grocery store, where Jerry worked as a delivery boy. His mother, Florence (Crossman) Uelsmann, was a homemaker. At age 12, Jerry began taking drawing lessons at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, where he became fascinated with “Self-Portrait” by Van Gogh.

In high school, he was a photographer for the student newspaper and worked in a photography studio.

When he entered the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, his goal was to become a portrait photographer. But under the influence of teachers like the photographer minor white (who called the camera “a metamorphosis machine,” Mr. Uelsmann said), he began to see a wider world in photography.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1957, Mr. Uelsmann earned a Masters in Broadcast Communication and a Masters of Fine Arts in Photography from Indiana University in 1960.

From 1960 to 1998, he taught photography at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Very early on, in a collective darkroom, he first used several enlargers, an innovative approach that accelerated his creation of photomontages. He received a Guggenheim Photography Fellowship in 1967, the year he had a solo exhibition at the modern Art Museum At New York.

John Szarkowski, the famous director of MoMA’s photography department, once said in an interview with New York’s Daily News that Mr. Uelsmann had dared to question the purpose of a photo once it had been taken. .

“He meditates on his images, experiments with printing techniques, recombines images,” Szarkowski said, “and the result is really artistic and new.”

Mr. Uelsmann’s books and monographs include “Uelsmann: Process and Perception” (1985); “Silver Meditations” (1988) and “Uelsmann Untitled: A Retrospective” (2014, with Carol McCusker).

Describing Mr. Uelsmann’s home studio in Gainesville in ‘Uelsmann Untitled’, Ms. McCusker wrote that its walls were ‘pinned with cartoons, doll heads, weird toys that move or talk, 3D sculptures of Hieronymus Bosch and 19th century Victoriana. and that her shelves were filled with memorabilia from cameras, mugshots and gadgets – all of which seemed to form a chorus “that silently encourages or inspires her next creation”.

In addition to his son, Mr. Uelsmann, who died in a hospice, is survived by two grandchildren. His marriages to Marilyn Schlott, Diane Faris and Maggie Taylor ended in divorce.

Mr. Uelsmann understood the benefits of using Photoshop, which was developed by Adobe in the late 1980s, but he chose not to give up his analog art. He used a computer, but only for email.

“If I was 22, I’d probably work in Photoshop,” he told The Times.

And Photoshop seemed to like it. In 2013, his Twitter account shared an article about Mr. Uelsmann’s photo manipulation with a message that read, « The incredible composites of Jerry Uelsmann remind us that imagination is everything.

His ex-wife, Ms. Taylor, a digital artist who uses Photoshop, recalled that Adobe approached Mr. Uelsmann in the mid-1980s to create a poster image to promote a new version of Photoshop.

It was his introduction to the software. Adobe scanned some of his negatives and sent an expert to help create a final photomontage of clouds resting in the palms of two hands while a rowboat floats unattended in the nearby water. He decided what to put where, but didn’t know how to use the software.

‘He liked the image and decided to take the negatives to the darkroom and recreate them photographically,’ Ms Taylor wrote in an email. “Working in the humid darkroom was an integral part of his creative process; sitting at a desk was not for him.

Michael C. Garrison