Jerry Uelsmann

November 17, 2022 - January 7, 2023

“It is my conviction that the darkroom is capable of being, in the truest sense, a visual research lab; a place for discovery, observation and meditation.”  –Jerry Uelsmann

Scheinbaum & Russek is honored to present an exhibition of the work of the late Jerry Uelsmann, a master photographer, exceptional teacher, and great friend.

Jerry Uelsmann, through his artistic work and his teaching, furthered an area within the photographic oeuvre creating and expanding 19th century ideas to make his own vision. Mastering various darkroom and exposure techniques, Uelsmann has been able to bring the ideas that drove the Surrealist movement into photography. He goes this, not by photographing per se, but by creating finished photographic compositions that are made first in his mind, created from his psyche.

He approaches his imagery from a “post-visualization” perspective. He pours over his contact sheets and negatives, creating the finished product in his mind before he enters the darkroom, while at the same time allowing himself the flexibility to alter and change the print as he works. Each print is an experiment individually produced without digital manipulation or copy negatives. Uelsmann notes, “It is my conviction that the darkroom is capable of being, in the truest sense, a visual research lab; a place for discovery, observation and meditation.” 

In our current times the word “original” has been claimed by many, but few, especially in the arts, have attained that title in the truest meaning of the word. Jerry Uelsmann is such an artist.

Let’s take a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with the predecessors of his technique, who were both solving 19th century technical problems and translating them into new image-making.

The silver iodide emulsions of the late 19th-century were overly sensitive to the blue rays of the spectrum. Since blue is predominant in the sky, the skies were often overexposed and cloudless. You see this result in many 19th-century landscapes – a well-exposed foreground landscape with a white sky. A solution to solve this exposure problem was to produce two negatives, one exposed for the earth (often the foreground) and one for the sky.  Thus, the two negatives were masked and were printed on a single piece of paper. This technique came to be called “Combination Printing”, and is exemplified by the work of Gustav Le Gray in his dramatic seascapes of the period.

The Swedish photographer, Oscar Rejlander, while working in England, perfected this idea of combining negatives to an extreme and produced this monumental combination print, The Two Ways of Life. This was created by combining 30 separate negatives.

The final print took him six weeks to produce and measured 31×16 inches. The print was exhibited in 1857 in Manchester, England at the Art Treasures Exhibition.

Henry Peach Robinson, primarily a painter and etcher, took up photography in England in 1852. As Beaumont Newhall wrote in his history, “he made this print showing a dying girl attended by grief-stricken parents”. The print was made from five different negatives. Robinson stated that the principal model “was a fine healthy girl”. His intent was “to see how near death she could be made to look”.

The public was outraged. They felt tricked and manipulated. No such criticism was ever directed at a painter. This alerts us that photography was already considered “a truthful” medium. This period in time was a crucial one; the camera in the hands of artists was beginning to express thoughts and ideas, not necessarily a representation of reality.

These artists, ideas, and Uelsmann’s study of art history began to percolate in his mind and shaped his artistic expression.  Of the transformation of photography, he has stated:

“One of the major changes in attitude that occurred in the world of art as we moved from the nineteenth into the twentieth century was that the twentieth century artist became more involved with personal expression than with celebrating exclusively the values of the society or the church. Along with this change came a broader acceptance of the belief that the artist can invent a reality that is more meaningful than the one that is literally given to the eye. I subscribe enthusiastically to this.”

Jerry Uelsmann had his first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1967. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He was Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain and one of the founding members of The Society of Photographic Education. Most recently he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from the University of Florida in Gainesville.

There are numerous monographs of Jerry Uelsmann’s work that have been produced the world over in many languages. One standout is his 1985 publication, Process and Perception, by the University Presses of Florida. In this volume, he takes us into his darkroom and deconstructs many of his well-known images. The book, like his work, is inspirational and gives us a rare insight into his image-making process.

In celebration of Uelsmann’s extraordinary life and career as a photographer, Scheinbaum & Russek are pleased to present this memorial exhibition.  Jerry was a close friend of ours and he is greatly missed.  Our lives were deeply touched by his humanity, kindness, and very quick and lively mind which he shared with so many of us in the photographic world.

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