In Focus: Jerry Uelsmann

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Decades before the advent of Photoshop, Jerry Uelsmann was already creating an impressive and groundbreaking collection of photographic work. His darkroom-developed images combining multiple negatives would ultimately lead to a revolution of mid-20th century photography and a career that spans five decades. His black and white images are part of the Annenberg Space for Photography’s current exhibition, Digital Darkroom. We are thrilled to have Uelsmann as one of our featured artists and excited to learn what the “forefather” of manipulated photography may be up to next.

Born in Detroit in 1934, Uelsmann developed an interest in photography as a teenager.  After receiving his MFA from Indiana University, he began teaching photography at the University of Florida in 1960. It was during this decade that other photographers would evaluate his work of combining unrelated negatives into imaginary and fantastical scenes as not being true photography. Uelsmann says “I would show my work to other photographers, they’d always say, ‘Well, this is interesting, but this is not photography.’ I’d buy the same cameras, spend hours in the darkroom, but somehow they were locked in to the sort of documentary, camera-conceived imagery tradition, which still dominates photography.”

A major break for Uelsmann occurred in 1967, when his images were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  His collection of work, that just a few years earlier had been criticized, was now viewed by a dedicated faction as avant-garde and boundary breaking. “It was like being blessed by the Pope,” he later joked about the experience. Uelsmann would continue to defy and challenge tradition over the following decades leading to a retrospective of his work with the publication of “The Mind’s Eye” encompassing fifty years of his photography.

Despite the readily accessible digital photography programs such as Photoshop, Uelsmann has no interest in changing his work routine, even now at 77 years old. When recently asked why he continues to work in the darkroom, rather than transition to digital he said, “I fell in love with the alchemy of the photographic process and to this day, watching that print come up in the developer is magic for me. I still find it a wonderful, challenging experience.”

Learn more about master craftsman Jerry Uelsmann with a visit to the Annenberg Space for Photography. You can catch his surreal images along with the work of our additional sixteen featured artists in Digital Darkroom now through May 28th.

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