Jerry Uelsmann, master of photographic illusion, dies at 87

Most people may not know the name Jerry Uelsmann, but photographers know him as the photographic artist – and ultimate craftsman and visionary.

He is known for his composite photos in the era not only before Photoshop, but even before computers were household items. Uelsmann died April 4 in Gainesville, Florida, where he was a professor emeritus at the University of Florida. He was 87 years old.

I was first fascinated by his work when I was a photography student about 40 years ago. Learning to use a single enlarger with a single negative, I would be puzzled as to how it would create its fantastic, jaw-dropping images. Uelsmann used several enlargers, each with a different negative, to create his images.

An untitled photo of Jerry Uelsmann from 1976.

Uelsmann used his technique to further his surreal artistic vision. Not only would they be technically beautiful, but the scenes would evoke an ethereal fantasy, often combining the natural world with man-made scenes or objects imbued with thought and emotion.

Looking at his work is like looking at daydreams. An untitled piece from 1976, one of my favorites, features a mysterious paneled room. Instead of a ceiling, there’s the sun peeking through a cloud-filled sky. In the center of the room is a tilted drafting table with what appears to be a large map on it. A small person pulls out a small book also on the table and on the map.

There is an enigmatic and mysterious quality to Uelsmann’s work. I always believed he embodied a quote from the late Ansel Adams: “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”, which means that while he has a voice and a vision for his images, viewers also need to bring their own interpretation and feelings to the experience.

Indeed, many of his works are untitled, forcing the viewer to decipher even more the meaning and emotion of the images.

An untitled photo of Jerry Uelsmann from 1989.

Uelsmann would explore the world with his camera like any other photographer should. But things would diverge when he returned to his dark room:

“My creative process begins when I go out with the camera and interact with the world. A camera is really a license to explore. There are no dull things. There are only indifferent people. For me, walking around the block where I live could take 5 minutes. But when I have a camera, it can take five hours. You just engage in the world differently. If you can arrive to a point where you react emotionally, not intellectually, with your camera, there’s a whole world to meet there’s a lot of source material once you have the freedom of not having to complete an image in front of the camera,” Uelsmann said in a 2007 interview with Shutterbug Magazine.

An untitled photo of Jerry Uelsmann from 1994

What is remarkable about Uelsmann’s process is that it is completely manual. He meticulously exposed a piece of photographic paper through several enlargers and developed them in trays of chemicals. Today, photos like these can be combined on a computer, but it would still take someone very skilled to match Uelsmann’s level of expertise and precision.

While he finds today’s digital techniques interesting, he stays on his analog paths: “I am sensitive to the current digital revolution and enthusiastic about the visual options created by the computer. However, I feel that my creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the dark room.”

Uelsmann’s innovative and creative vision will never be seen again and the death is a huge loss for the photographic world. But we still have his enduring images and with them we can dream.

Record photographer Clifford Oto has photographed Stockton and San Joaquin County for over 37 years. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @Recordnet. Follow his blog at recordnet.com/otoblog. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at recordnet.com/subscribenow.

Michael E. Marquez