UF honors photomontage artist, educator Jerry Uelsmann
Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 2:20 p.m.
A circle of chairs rests on a floor made of thick stratus clouds. Water pours out of a picture frame holding a painting of the ocean. Out of a gnarled tree stump grows a pair of hands cupping a bird's nest.
These images seem the stuff of dreams, or even nightmares, but photographer Jerry Uelsmann makes them spring to reality in his photomontages.
Uelsmann, famous for his photographs that seamlessly meld multiple negatives, will receive an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Florida's School of Art and Art History at this month's commencement ceremonies.
The school also honored the former UF professor by starting a studio art scholarship fund in his name.
Richard Heipp, director of the School of Art and Art History, said he selected Uelsmann for this award because of his achievements as both an artist and an educator. He says the College of Fine Arts has given out five or six honorary doctorates in total.
"He's been a mentor and a hero and he represents an artistic spirit," he said. "He makes art from his heart and he makes it every day. We're really proud of Jerry. We cherish him here."
Amy Vigilante, director of the University Galleries, said Uelsmann, who joined UF's staff in 1960 as its first photography professor, has made an impact not only in the field of photography, but education as well.
"He is an incredible teacher," she said. "Every student he has had that I've talked to says he's had an impact on their education."
Uelsmann, whose work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1967, differs from other photographers in that his images are not created with a click of the shutter. Instead, his creative process takes place in the dark room, where he uses multiple enlargers and masking and dodging techniques to create seamless composite negatives. He said this post-visualization process allows him to create images that truly amaze him.
"Post-visualization is an appeal for people to consider other options after you click the shutter," Uelsmann said. "There's an ongoing dialogue with the materials as you build your image."
Uelsmann's work was considered controversial in the 1960s because it departed from the prevailing notion that photographs are documents of reality. Uelsmann's work turns this notion on its head by creating landscapes that can only be perceived within the imagination.
"You're conditioned from an early age that photographs represent a reality. There's a part of your brain that wants to believe this is reality. But the images I create are not something that literally can be perceived," Uelsmann said.
Vigilante says much like humorists who combine opposite ideas to create jokes, Uelsmann's juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous objects allows him to create images rife with visual wit.
"It makes you think. It expands your visual consciousness," she said. "That's what keeps people intrigued."
Carol McCusker, curator of photography at the Harn Museum of Art, said Uelsmann's instantly recognizable pieces invite a dialogue with viewers.
"He wants the viewers to bring their reality to his layers of reality," she said. "The viewer finishes the work by bringing his own imagination, memories and dreams to it."
She said Uelsmann is often referred to as the "Father of Photoshop." His wife, Maggie Taylor, uses similar digital editing techniques to create her works, which echo an earlier era of portrait photography.
"Jerry's opened up that world for young people using Photoshop to create alternative realities," she said.
Uelsmann said he continues to challenge himself daily and is still discovering new techniques or effects to improve upon his work.
"As you age, it gives you a greater depth of understanding with which you can comment on the world," he said. "It adds new dimensions to the ways you think about and understand and perceive the world. There are always going to be questions — that's part of the creative process."