Unsettled utopia: The photography of Jerry Uelsmann at FMoPA

Five decades of stunning surrealist compositions — and no Photoshopping.

With the Dalì Museum nearby, we’re well-versed in surrealist painting and its unexpected juxtapositions of symbolic objects. It’s relatively easy to create surreal compositions in a painting or collage, but it’s a bit more complicated with photography. When Jerry Uelsmann started exploring this technique of manual photomontage, photos were still mostly regarded as documentary, objective proof.

That being said: There’s no Photoshop here, folks. That now-ubquitous program wasn’t even available for retail purchase until 1990, which is important to keep in mind because some of these photographs date back to the ’60s. Because he’s worked with traditional photography development since the age of 14, Uelsmann has many darkroom tricks up his sleeve.

In an exhibition that covers five decades of his work, the 60 photographs on display are curated according to themes that have recurred throughout his artistic practice eyes, clouds, hands, rowboats, the tree of life, and semi-ominous hovering boulders — rather than chronologically.

On the right wing of the gallery is a gathering of works incorporating the female figure. In Untitled 1992, a reclining woman is transformed into a fast-flowing waterfall, suggesting women's underlying power. This scene is more calming than other photos in the room, especially Untitled from 2011. The back of a sitting woman emerges from a mostly black, engulfing darkness, her head down and invisible from view, her arms draped behind her. A tiny white cloud hovers inches above her back. Despite its size, the cloud seems to pin the woman down with invisible weight. Because of the careful juxtaposition of visuals, a mood of uneasiness and tension surfaces.

Creating these analog photographic collages, Uelsmann carries one camera with no extra attachments. He uses over half a dozen enlargers in the large darkroom in his Gainesville studio, moving his photo paper progressively down the assembly line. He exposes one section at a time, using a masking technique to cover what he doesn’t want exposed, so the final image ends up being a composite of multiple negatives.

One detail visitors will notice right away is that most of Uelsmann’s pieces are untitled. FMoPA Executive Director Zora Carrier explains that early in the artist’s career, his surrealist titles became the target of critique, so he stopped naming his works for many years. Only recently has he started naming some works again, giving the audience some clues to his thought process. But even though Uelsmann has a particular concept in mind for a piece, it’s clear he wants us to apply our own stories, meanings and points of view to create new allegories through his photomontages. To him, the viewer completes the work of art.

Questions of Self from 2015 is one of a few self-portrait pieces where the addition of a title adds depth to the image. The aging artist seems either sad or startled as he softly clutches his chest and looks out his window over desert land. He’s confronted by his own reflection, which appears as a monochrome negative. Barely visible in the artist’s reflection is the figure of a young boy as he walks away from us. Uelsmann reveals the way he confronts aging — and eventually, death — with somber, wistful visual poetics.

To this day, he prefers to work in a traditional darkroom over Photoshop. After devoting years to perfecting his skills, you can see Uelsmann enjoys the more hands-on, technically challenging process of darkroom work. “Perfection” must be a recurring word in his vocabulary since all of his glossy works are so carefully crafted and seemingly devoid of mistakes; these narrative scenes with loaded signs/signifiers become naturalized as real.

A string of Untitled floating rowboat pieces from 1997, 1998 and 2003 easily cross that line between “real” and “fake.” Wonderfully haunting, one boat drifts above the tumultuous waters of a steadily streaming waterfall. Most of his photomontages, like this one, could be described as an unsettled utopia: inviting, yet somewhat intimidating. The boat as a vessel could easily serve as a metaphor for our bodies as vessels, floating through life on personal spiritual journeys. Jerry Uelsmann’s photography, not unlike life itself, is full of curious ambiguities.

Jerry Uelsmann: Undiscovered Self

Through December 2016.

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

400 N. Ashley Drive, Cube 200, Tampa, 813-221-2222. fmopa.org.

 Your vote matters! Join FMoPA on Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. to vote for one out of three selected Uelsmann photographs to be added to the museum’s permanent collection. Voting ends at 7:15 p.m., with the winning piece announced at 7:55 p.m. Free for members and $25 for non-members.

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