For the past four decades Jerry Uelsmann, a pioneer of photo manipulation in the darkroom, has been ultra-successful in creating a never-ending array of surreal photographic montages by hand. Critics have often likened these composites to "dreams that slip past our perceptual defenses, triggering a response but never quite revealing their meaning." In the interview that follows, PDN talks with Uelsmann about his life, his love for photography and how he creates his mystical, magical art. In this age of ever-advancing computer technology, Uelsmann is more than content to remain cloistered in his darkroom—cup of coffee by his side, music blaring—with as many as five or six enlargers at his command to create, distort and expand on his vision. "My whole career has been built on—and continues to thrive on—the silver print," says Uelsmann. "That is where all of my energies go." PDN: Was there one defining moment in your life where you said, "I know that photography is what I want to do forever?"
JERRY UELSMANN: My first involvement in photography occurred when I was in high school, when I essentially thought I wanted to become a commercial photographer. I enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology and as fate would have it, they had just begun a four-year program and had hired Minor White and Ralph Hattersley, people who soon introduced me to the notion that photography could be used as self-expression, which greatly appealed to me. After RIT, I went on to Indiana University and initially began a program called audio-visual education, because I thought I had to make a living somehow. But there was a man there, Henry Holmes Smith, in the art department, who virtually changed my life. He pushed me out into the deep water. He was a very profound and challenging professor who constantly questioned me about what I was doing. Because of him, I switched over into the fine-art program and that opened up the possibilities for me.
PDN: So you would encourage high school students or anyone interested in photography to attend photo-oriented or technical schools which might help solidify their career choice? UELSMANN: I've always felt in academia that the best that can happen is that you meet two or three great people. And I was blessed with meeting Beaumont Newhall, Minor White, Ralph Hattersley, and Henry Holmes Smith, all of whom really expanded my horizons. I went right from graduate school to the University of Florida to begin my teaching career. And I stayed at that same institution because academia has been the patron for people working purely in the fine-art area. You could not have that in the Fifties or Sixties, it had been very difficult to get any kind of income. There weren't galleries or that sort of thing back then. PDN: What was it like taking classes conducted by someone like Minor White? UELSMANN: Minor White had a very interesting personality and a sort of spiritual presence. He was always showing us abstract pictures with rocks and talking about how they related to his feelings or to certain other issues, certain spiritual issues. And he had us reading books like Zen in the Art of Archery . It was sort of mind-boggling. Some people had difficulty with it, but I always felt that Minor appreciated my willingness to try to learn things. He would talk about a photograph and say, "Now the spirit came down when I took this" and I'm this inner-city kid from Detroit saying, "Excuse me. What was that like when that spirit came down?" And he would try to talk about that. And since that time I've experienced these sort of magical moments where certain things happened that intellectually you're not aware of . . .it's only later that you realize the power and the impact of that particular time. PDN: And when do these moments occur?
UELSMANN: Well, we traditionally put the primary creative gesture at the camera, that when we click the shutter this is it and then you go into the darkroom and become essentially, a craftsperson....
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