Jerry Uelsmann
Mystic, Alchemist, Surrealist.
“Pictures of Matchstick Mean” b/ Status Quo (1968)
((( visual mystic )))


Manual Intelligence. Photoshop by hand. In a darkroom. Seamless Surreal, fantastic images.

“Photograph” b/ Ringo Starr

((( 1973 )))


april 4, 1979
vol 71 no 108

By Jonathan Susskind
Alligator Staff Writer

For thousands of years, alchemists have searched in vain for the philosopher’s stone, the magical substance which could transmute base metals into precious gold and silver.

Photographer Jerry Uelsmann has succeeded where alchemy failed. Only he turned the tables on the mystics.

With camera, darkroom and seething imagination, he transforms silver into magic.

In art circles, Uelsmann is known as one of the persons significantly responsible for changing. the scope and direction of contemporary photography. His works have won him worldwide acclaim and representätion in major photographic collections. Prestigious museums vie for his exhibitions. Art patrons praise his innovative style and creative genius.

But in Gainesville, Uelsmann is better known as an easygoing member of the UF art faculty who wears jeans to school and converses readily with his students. The 44-year-old graduate research professor slouches comfortably behind the desk in a shared Floyd Hall office, rambling good-naturedly while gesturing with the stump of a chewed cigar.

Success is a far-off word for the slightly disheveled artist; his nonchalance about his achievements is a bit disarming. He is as much at home talking about his racquetball game as talking about his life’s work and hobby.

But step into the darkroom in the rear of his eclectic Southwest Gainesville home. Uelsmann is truly in his element here, puttering around in the cramped orange-lit darkness. From a batter of enlargers, chemical baths, light boxes and other photographic equipment, he produces a “visual diary of life experiences.”

You and I are quite content to take the bland, unobtrusive snapshots of friends or scenic vistas, and let it go at that. But Uelsmann’s photographs never let the viewer get away so easily.

“There is data here of some kind – a way in which I’ve related to the world,” says Uelsmann.

Among a background of desert underbrush, a man stands, hands on hips, a tortured mesquite bush springing forth from where his head should be. An innocent baby nestles snugly in a symmetrical palmetto frond. A gothic cathedral spirals upward from the base of a gnarled cypress stump. Two huge maple leaves fade into the clear sky of a rippling beach.

Some photos are so eye-catching as to be worth 10 times a thousand words.

Critics and reviewers have termed

Uelsmann’s art “unexpected,” “oddly logical,” and “dreamlike.”

A recent biography says his images “give the

viewer a sense of having “been there before.”

Uelsmann says he is no mystic, just a modern, creative artist. He sees in responses to his work a reflection of the human collective consciousness. “My work directs itself at the creativeness of the viewer,” he says.

But in the more relaxed darkroom setting, Uelsmann admits, “Photography is a form of contemporary alchemy, not just a science. It is magic. There are no two ways about it. It is an incredible process.

Unlike most photographers, who are camera and lens oriented, Uelsmann does most of his image making in the darkroom. His one workhorse camera is a Bronica. “But does it matter what kind of typewriter Hemingway used?* he asks. “There are a lot of fine cameras, but the problem an image maker has is to come up with something that is visually exciting.

Uelsmann defines the artist’s creativity as

“visual literacy” the ability to distinguish between visual experiences. And he uses a key phrase in describing his artistic philosophy – “in-process discovery.”

There are ways in which you can engage yourself in the world when you use a camera that you do not do otherwise.

There is a dialogue between the artist and the art – that’s in-process discovery. A simple way to think about it is to walk to your car. It may take you 10 minutes. If you have a camera, that same walk could take you a couple of hours, because suddenly you will be looking at things in terms of other possibilities, graphic possibilities. Intense viewing provides a viewer with a form of knowledge, not literal or testable, but a kind of rapport with the world. Ideas come with the process.”

Uelsmann says he still has trouble dealing with traditional photography, which puts the creative moment at the snapping of the shutter. “That was the moment of truth,” he says.

“One-fiftieth of a second against eternity. Then you went into the darkroom to bring that internal vision into being. I say, allow for discovery at all points of the process. Each moment is of immediate and lasting significance.

Reversing the camera-based ideology, Uelsmann puts the darkroom back into the creative process. “It is a place to explore. It is capable of being a visual research laboratory.

Leave behind your preconceptions in terms of what should happen, and go in there to see what indeed are the possibilities. Let the ideas work in relation to the images.’ Uelsmann creates his surrealistic magic using darkroom techniques that are not unknown to the commercial or amateur photographer: multiple printing, lens blocking, negative sandwiching, solarization and others. “All of these techniques break photography’s believability with the real world,” Uelsmann says. He may use one or all of six of his enlargers to print one photo, flicking his hand across the paper to soften an image here, minutely adjusting the corner there. He always is experimenting with new processes to enhance his technical repertoire, but sometimes “when I discover a new technique, it’s like having the answer before you get the question. I have to find out where that (technique) can be useful in other areas.

“It’s a constant battle. When I’m at my worst in the darkroom, I just run through a series of techniques like I’m juggling. When I’m at my best, I begin to understand how certain techniques create a dreamlike state or address another consciousness

Having broken out of the traditional photographic mold, Uelsmann now feels “free to use the camera just to say ‘I love you, rock.”

And quite often Uelsmann’s art seems to say just that. His shutter catches images of rocks, trees, water, sky, old houses and other natural, earthy objects which form the basis for the familiar qualities of his art. By juxtaposing images, Uelsmann creates the “dream-like” effect, but with unlikely vividness and seamless precision.

Uelsmann’s lectures and shows have taken him from Alaska to Europe, but he believes “we are never in a strange place. We are the holders of the value system, and you always seek out familiar forms and objects.”

Crescent Beach and St. Augustine, his favorite places to photograph, are “like old friends. They seem to hold their mystery longer.”

Sometimes, he adds, “The pictures are looking for me. The human form is a regular feature or ghostly addition in many of his prints, though he does not usually concentrate on the body’s landscape aspects. “The Nude figures are more symbolic, more enigmatic in their connotations.

Uelsmann received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in

photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, and earned two Masters degrees in photography and audio-visual communications at Indiana University. From there he came to UF in 1960, “because there was a job here.” In retrospect, he says he is glad he took the faculty position at UF, which gives him both contact with students and time to continue creating. “Had I found a job in an urban area,” he says, “it would have affected my work because I would have expended so much of my energy trying to defend my photography as art.

As an established and respected artist, Uelsmann now has little time to respond to critics who still question photography’s place in art.

“The phenomenon of man creating images is as old as man himself,” he says. “I’m part of a long tradition. I hear some criticism, and I understand where it is coming from. But the reality is that you know more about what you’re doing than anyone else. You answer by your work.

A one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1967 gave Uelsmann his first major break into the art scene.

That success snowballed after many other exhibitions in the United States and abroad. His book, Silver Meditations, and portfolios also brought him critical acclaim.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society:

Visitors to the opening of the Thomas Center in February saw his first major show in Gainesville outside of UF art faculty exhibits. Uelsmann donated the photo for the Center’s publicity, calling the untitled work

“a remembrance of things past.” He was impressed with the show’s professionalism, “as fine as ones I’ve had in New York.” Uelsmann also helped the Hippodrome with two publicity prints for its shows Streamers and Statements and The Island.

“You do these favors for friends,” he says, adding with a smile, We got a couple of T-shirts out of the deal.

An artist in her own right, Uelsmann’s wife Diane Farris also is his best and most sympathetic critic. Their modern house overlooking a quiet pond “has a lot of visual things to play with,” Uelsmann says in his best understated tone. The walls, tables and air are filled with memorabilia, knickknacks, photos and unusual “junk” (particularly cherubs and angels). Sharing their home are a cat, a dog named Toad, and their first child, Andrew Light, Uelsmann’s newest photographic subject.

Uelsmann says success has not spoiled him or appreciably changed his goals. “Success is never a goal. It’s a sort of journey you find yourself on. I’ve influenced the history of contemporary photography. I sensed from early on that I was doing something that other people had not done. It feels a bit rewarding, but I don’t think about it much.

Sometimes Uelsmann the artist finds Uelsmann the public man a bit detrimental to his work. He frequently spends a whole day answering piles of mail, and he makes many trips for lecture. “Economic wealth is not where it’s at,” he says, but 25 years of two rolls of film a week and a box of photographic paper a day add up.

As for the future, Uelsmann says he plans to spend the rest of his life in Gainesville, although he has received lucrative offers from other schools.

He continues to believe that “art is not always a positive visual dessert. There are real issues that can be dealt with.”

“I’ve got no long-range plans. I would like to keep active as an artist. Once you accept the responsibility or the folly of being an image maker, then it affects the way you view things. As you get older, perhaps you get gentler in your way of relating to the world. I’m more inclined to be playful, experimental, to do things that I might not have done before.

1 also feel free to investigate things I’ve done before and do them differently

At times, Uelsmann the artist muses mysteriously over his darkroom sink. His restless personality “I’m a double Gemini with Capricorn rising — there is some element of truth there.”

He speaks up again. “There’s no logical reason for this to happen,” he says, pointing to prints rinsing in clear running water. “You saw what happened in that developing tray.

“If that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.”

“if” b/ Bread
((( 1971 )))

“Painted Picture” b/ Commodores
((( 1982 )))



“Pictures of Home” b/ Deep Purple
((( 1972 )))



“Pictures of You” b/ The Cure
((( 1986 )))