In photographer Jerry Uelsmann's visionary world, nothing is necessarily where it's supposed to be: A tree and the earth in which it's rooted float eerily above a lake, leaving a reflection on the water below. A spectacularly lit carpet of clouds drifts above the four walls of an artist's studio as a tiny man traverses a drawing table poised in the center of the room. An opening rose of many cupped hands reveals the shape of a heart, abutted by a distant shadowy figure walking through a sunlit archway. Look at them, then close your eyes. When you open them again, you'll think you're dreaming. Technically, you're not, but...
"In a way, they're obviously symbolic, but they're not symbolically obvious," Uelsmann -- in town this week in conjunction with a show of his work at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center -- says of his pleasing, chimerical photo-collage works, which have garnered a good following over the years. The pieces are even downright popular, a quality not commonly enjoyed by art photographers. "People project their own feelings and emotions onto them, connecting in personal ways," he explains. And that's just his way of inviting viewers to come to their own conclusions, a mission born in reaction to the rigid atmosphere of art photography of the '50s, when everything else radiated necessarily from the perfect (and most certainly beautiful) norm of an Ansel Adams print.
Of course, Uelsmann, who's been improving his signature techniques for over thirty years, is essentially a traditionalist, manipulating classic photographic techniques toward non-traditional ends. His first attempts at photo-collage, he says, were inspired by seeing similar work executed poorly. He filtered it through an open mind influenced by the theories of artists in other disciplines. And though he's aware of the breakthroughs possible with new digital technology, he still prefers the mysterious alchemy of the darkroom. "If I were younger," Uelsmann notes, "maybe I'd explore those options, but at my age, the learning curve is pretty steep for that. And I already have a whole audience."
That's understandable, considering how Uelsmann works. "I like the way the camera gets you out interacting with the world -- the camera gives you license to explore," he says. "But the darkroom is like my visual research lab. I collect images literally from all over the world, and while at the time I take them I realize there's something interesting in the background or foreground, I have no idea how I will use those elements until I get home and study the contact sheets. That's when I see how certain things might work together." It's not as easy as it looks, either: Though surprises -- even for the seasoned artist in the darkroom -- do still bloom in the fluid trays, Uelsmann's best works don't really happen by accident. "Every year, I produce well over 1,200 different images," he says. "But by the end of the year, there are maybe ten I'm happy with."
After all his years of surprising viewers again and again, does Jerry Uelsmann have a favorite image? Sure does: "The next one I'm going to make." Is his work still evolving and changing? You bet: "Constantly coming up with images that resonate with myself first, and then with my audience, is an ongoing challenge." Are there any more goals he hopes to attain in this lifetime? Yes: "I plan to live forever. So far, I'm doing okay."