In the 1960s, Jerry Uelsmann revolutionized the art of photography by manually blending negatives to produce dreamlike landscapes. “The primary creative gesture for most photographers used to be when they clicked the shutter,” Uelsmann says. “But I realized that the darkroom was a visual research lab where the creative process could continue.” Though we’re now in the era of Photoshop, he continues to forsake digital manipulation, as with the 2006 untitled image made from three photos, one including his wife’s hands. “It is an incredible leap of faith to think maybe this tree could blend into these hands,” Uelsmann says. “But the camera is a license to explore.” Uelsmann’s creations are showcased in a traveling exhibit, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” at the National Gallery of Art through May 5.
Uelsmann pieced together the image, above, in 2006 by using four enlargers to blend three photos: a raven, a tree trunk in Manhattan and his wife’s hands holding a bird’s nest he found outside his window. “It is an incredible leap of faith to think maybe this tree could blend into these hands,” Uelsmann says. “But the camera is a license to explore.”
As a student, Uelsmann had mentors who challenged him to put his emotions into his work. “I gained an appreciation of the idea that you can build images that can personally have great meaning for you,” he says. “I really identified with the transition from outer-directed art to what was essentially inner-directed art at the start of the 20th century.” In the darkroom, though, he tries not to get too theoretical: “My challenge is just to keep working and see what happens.” He made the image, shown above, in 1976.
Uelsmann has a particular taste for surreal landscapes, such as the 1969 image above. “When people see my work, if their first response is ‘how did he do it?’ that’s when I’ve failed,” he says. “I don’t mind that being the second response, but I want the first response to be some authentic emotional response, like ‘gee that’s weird.’ I’m not trying to communicate something hidden. I like images that sustain their mystery.”