Thinking of Jerry N. Uelsmann

Uelsmann at home, (Rubin 2018)

Uelsmann passed away this week; photographers and creatives worldwide are mourning. Carol McCusker, the curator of photography at the Harn Museum, wrote this of Uelsmann:

Uelsmann came of age in the 1960s which informed his art, a period of resisting the status quo. He joyfully challenged and expanded traditional notions of the camera as a singular, objective recording device. He was among the first of his generation to do so, and occasionally encountered controversy from those who valued documentary photography as the essential agent of change in an age rife with conflict.

Through his liberated sensibilities, photography became a tool of self-expression and exploration by combining multiple negatives (he had seven enlargers in his darkroom which he often used to make one print), thereby reinventing realities that evoke memory, spirit, and desire through his meticulously printed, signature black and white aesthetic. With imagination and wit, he turned landscapes into conundrums, reveled in the poetry of the human body, and re-imagined reality altogether.

For as long as I can remember, his photographs lined the walls of our home. With prints like Small Woods Where I Met Myself and Apocalypse II displayed near my bedroom, it’s a wonder I turned out even remotely normal. No little blue elephants by my crib. It was more like this:

Uelsmann’s Apocalypse II (1967) was just one of the relatively creepy images that haunted my childhood.

I’ve spent the morning thinking about all the ways he influenced me. In one way or another he’s been part of my life since I was an infant. His mom was my babysitter and it was she who connected Jerry and his wife to my parents. At the time I knew nothing of photography, but his images were ubiquitous and haunting; and our family’s frequent journeys to his home on the edge of town was an early powerful influence.

Jerry Uelsmann was all about juxtaposition. In his photos and in his home. His house was its own sort of collage. A visual feast for a kid. First, there were the types of things he collected — angels, alligators, cameras, hamburgers, figurines, stuffed animals, buttons, a host of antiques… But they were scattered around, and mixed up together and no matter where you looked there was some level of curiosity and detail. As a little kid I gravitated to a turn-of-the-century gum dispenser with a little man on a bicycle riding in a loop before depositing your stale gum. I loved messing around with his player piano. My brother recalls a box of percussive musical instruments he’d pull out and let us play. I was fascinated with the plush moose head on the wall, almost a cartoon, with a hat and a couple cameras around his neck. There were always fun things to discover.

Uelsmann’s workspaces in 2018. I used these to rationalize not cleaning my room as a kid. And it became exactly how I would decorate as an adult.

And then of course there were the photographs. Some by him. Many by his friends and mentors — Weston’s Pepper 30, Kertesz’ Satyric Dancer. And maybe the weirdest, rarest thing I had ever seen — he had a print of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, framed, but ripped in half! He had half a Moonrise! (How cool is that?) The last time I visited him he pulled out a little package he had once received from Imogen Cunningham: it was some beautiful dried leaves that she was sending for him to include in his montages.

A 1970 letter from Imogen Cunningham…

I noticed her address was a few blocks from where I then-lived in San Francisco. Uelsmann was anointed by Adams and Cunningham as an “official West Coast photographer,” and the photo by Ted Orland (Ansel’s assistant) always made us laugh.

At left, half a Moonrise…

This delightful and humorous way he decorated carried into his photos — not usually laugh-outloud funny (like perhaps Elliot Erwitt), but deep-smiles, sweet, silly. Hot Dog Trip. Little Hamburger Tree. With Jerry, photos were fun.

Uelsmann’s Little Hamburger Tree (1970) was so simple and yet always delightful. What’s missing here is a sense of just how small and adorable the print is — on silvery paper and tiny! His Untitled nude (1977) went up in our home when I was starting high school and I spent hours with it. For me it started a fascination with the body — and a focus on just how minimal a line or shadow can be to imbue the rock with sensuality.

Uelsmann and Adams were two sides of the same coin and they knew it. Where Adams was all about pure seeing, careful preparation and exposures, what he called “pre visualization” — Uelsmann was all magic and myth, his images created in the darkroom. He jokingly referred to it as “post visualization.” And yet they were both darkroom masters, and in spite of those superficial differences, they both saw photography as an artistic creation, separate from objective reality, and both ultimately built their works in the darkroom through extraordinary efforts in the printing. Adams referred to his photos like music — he said his negatives were a score, but the print was the performance. This was even more true for Uelsmann. The intricate burning and dodging they both did was a dance, a unique performance for each print. So in spite of Uelsmann using multiple images for montage, they really weren’t all that different.

Uelsmann taught my mother photography and he helped her build a darkroom in our house. Like any real Uelsmann darkroom, we had three enlargers — still less than half his set up, but enough to play. Which I did.

The darkroom in our home (1978), a few enlargers, and Uelsmann’s prints on the wall. I spent most of high school in this windowless room.

For my first many years of taking pictures, I didn’t think of photography in terms of shooting something, but rather collecting interesting elements and objects in a specific range of lighting conditions which lent themselves to various sorts of darkroom composition, which one would come up with later. At the time, the idea of taking a picture and then printing it as you shot it struck me as simplistic. I believe that this approach led me to appreciate how much of creative photography was about interesting juxtapositions. So even as I evolved into straight photography, I never let go that structural component, and I’d see it repeated again and again in the funny shots by Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Uelsmann made me want to be a photographer. He made it look fun. But my father urged me to stick to photography as a personal, not professional, activity, and I landed in a technology career. But I never stopped shooting. As I watched digital imaging come of age, and the birth of Photoshop, I was uninterested in creating images this way and never took to digital compositing. In 2013 I even joined Adobe, but still I never got involved in the digital compositing of Photoshop. Uelsmann, too, never adopted that technology, and for his entire life stuck to his masterworks in the chemical darkroom. It never surprised me in the least.

Both my sister and I absorbed his aesthetic and it found its way not only into how we decorated our homes (“creative clutter”) but in the art we’d create. Her photo collages — made by cutting up photos and reassembling — was nothing if not post visualization. And my photographic “haiku” evolved from an understanding of both real life juxtapositions and the basic post production required to intensify those experiences. None would have been possible without Uelsmann’s playful inspirations.

My sister, Gabrielle Israelievitch’s montage “Yellow Taxi” (1998); one of my collegiate darkroom composites “Sayles Beach” (1982)

Uelsmann was an influence in so many ways; he got my parents to start collecting photographs — and introduced them to the masters of the day, which in the 1970s was still the folks who pioneered the artform. If that was all he had done for my family, it would have been enough. But he was also supportive of my explorations — and encouraged me to submit a portfolio when I was applying to college (and along with a letter of recommendation he wrote on my behalf, I’m certain contributed to my acceptance).

Over the decades I continued to see him on vacations, and he and my parents remained close. I always felt that Gainesville, Florida was an odd place to be from — our greatest claims to fame were Gatorade and Tom Petty — but for me nothing was ever as cool as growing up around Jerry Uelsmann. He made it okay to be a photographer and a bit cooler to be from Gainesville. He was the architect of my aesthetic and understanding of photography, something that consumes the entirety of my life these days. It’s been a difficult week, but his photos still make me smile.

For my 19th birthday…
From today’s Gainesville Sun: “Jerry Uelsmann, center, speaks to friend Mel Rubin after Uelsmann’s presentation about his friendship with photographer Ansel Adams at the Harn Museum of Art.” FILE/CHRISTINA STUART/THE GAINESVILLE SUN

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Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.

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M. H. Rubin

M. H. Rubin

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.

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