Jerry Uelsmann: Photographer essay

Perhaps one of the more spiritual photographers who greatly value the intrinsic value of their work rather than its commercial value during the present times is Jerry Uelsmann. Jerry Uelsmann is well known for his composite photographs that are made of multiple negatives. Combining negatives to come up with another picture is commonly attributed to Uelsmann himself. However, he is quick to acknowledge Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson as the pioneers of the said picture combination technique made popular in the late 1800’s.

The said technique entails the artist’s patience, creativity and foresight to come up with a cohesive image as a result of his/her post-visualization. The artist’s mastery of various darkroom techniques also comes into play as s/he creates the prints. His present knowledge and proficiency in combining negatives to come up with a cohesive final print started in the 1960’s when the young Uelsmann was working as a photographer in the art department of the University of Florida. Since then, Jerry Uelsmann has been producing images, which now spans a number of decades.

His different works depict various subjects and themes but are all quite allegorical and surreal. Although his subjects may differ, the surrealist approach has remained constant through the years. These may perhaps represent his spirituality and thought processes, which remain constant and fluid as well. During this time of digital imaging and photography, some people may say that Jerry Uelsmann’s images are easy to replicate, follow or duplicate. Some may even say that a lot of people can already do it without any training.

But then again, people have to consider the tedious work and the long hours that Uelsmann put into each of his works. As previously mentioned, although the subjects in Uelsmann’s photographs may vary, the surrealist approach, and the technique used do not. However, it can be said that since the art community and the public are now more accepting of less traditional pieces of art, Uelsmann’s present artworks are now more relaxed and perhaps even more “real” and spiritual compared to his older works, or those which he produced as a novice photographer.

Also, these days his works are already regarded as photographs, unlike as an independent art form when he first started. These days, Uelsmann is afforded more freedom since society and art aficionados have accepted image alteration in photography as a form of art. Changes in his work may also be attributed from the different advances in darkroom equipment and techniques. Thus, despite having real elements in the negatives, once combined, his works may then provide a perspective of fiction.

Despite these changes, however, Uelsmann has succeeded in becoming more of a real artist who emphasizes the artistic and intrinsic value of his works rather than the commercial value which is more likely the case these days. His experimentations in the field of photography has made him a popular inspiration and standout whose artistic freedom and expression may have caused him failure, yet brought him liberation in the same breath. “Untitled” (Free Spirit) is a Jerry Uelsmann image that was made in 1998.

It is a fairly new piece which evokes the same passion and technique that the artist has extensively used and refined through his years as a photographer. The picture depicts a pair of open hands carrying a fragile nest with a broken egg on it. The hands are seemingly pointing upwards to the vast horizon ahead, on which a sliver of light lends its glow to the open palms. An image on the sky above also adds drama and meaning to the piece. A dark form extends behind the hands, which provide great contrast with the light sky above the print.

The black and white photograph personally struck the writer because of its dramatic contrast and its sense of meaning and spirituality. Although his works are mostly a vivid display of visual contrast, the meaning and depth of the image somehow made a lasting impression. Its real meaning, or the real reason or explanation behind the image may perhaps be just Uelsmann’s own, however, the photograph in itself offered a surge of hope, of renewal, of breaking free, of soaring. The same thought is a popular thought these days, considering the cynicism that exists amidst human beings.

That, despite a seemingly endless tirade of hopelessness, darkness, confusions, injustice and problems; there lies a sliver of light which is just within reach. Within reach if people try to break free from what may be comfortable yet harmful, and soar into a higher level of living and being. The photograph’s content and meaning, its aesthetic value as well as its spiritual and humanistic meaning made it a personally significant and impressive piece. Its relevance in both the technical and emotional aspects worked well to create a lasting imprint in one’s mind and heart.