The world of photography has many mansions. Some photographers seek to capture a fleeting moment of action frozen in time. Others await the moment when the sun bursts through the clouds or when the bud opens. Jerry Uelsmann is a photographer of a very different stripe, creating composite photographs that are richly rewarding, telling a story, often with a strong, mystifying narrative.
And also creating a world of haunting beauty, which we are welcome to enter and savor.
In Journey into Night, a woman's hands cradle a bird's nest, within which rests a single egg, but it turns out the hands emanate from the trunk of a very thick tree, rising from a bed of brick-shaped cobblestones. In the foreground, a black bird observes. This work is titled, but most of the photographs are untitled, since Uelsmann prefers that you find your own way to his work's significance — hence the total exhibition is named "Untitled."
I assume the black bird is a raven, a symbol of loss, as with Edgar Allan Poe's raven (borrowed by Poe, with proper credit, from Dickens), quothing "Nevermore." The bird appears elsewhere as well in Uelsmann composites. Another recurring symbol for Uelsmann is an empty rowboat, which I take to signify the possibility of escape, though, wittily, the rowboat is usually high and dry — escaping from a world of magic is not easy.
Uelsmann has been creating his images of a world in which his rich imagination can thrive for more than five decades, solely in the darkroom, using a technique of multiple negatives, enlargers and processing effects to stretch the limits of what fine art photography can be. The exhibition includes vintage as well as contemporary prints.
In Small Boat Waiting (2012), the empty rowboat dominates as a central image. The oars are present, as is a heavy mooring rope, but the boat is stranded on what appears to be the Sargasso Sea, but without the water. As with many of these prints, you should study the details, for surprises may have been placed unobtrusively, but powerfully, in the landscape. In the background is a man, significantly semi-transparent, a ghostly witness, observing and silently participating as well.
Several prints represent what I take to be stone bridges in Manhattan's Central Park. One, titled Now, shows a deep fissure in the walkway beneath the bridge, leading perhaps to an underground cavern? Another, Then One Day, shows the walk filled with rippling water — and a cloud.
A number of beached rowboats appear in a 2009 print, this time at the edge of a lake, with two children standing next to the boats, and an imposing edifice on an island in the central distance. The effect is quiet, ominous, expectant, even more so when one notices that what might have passed for a cloud in a casual glance, in the upper right corner, is actually a hugely dominant bird. The play of light in the sky, reflected in the water, is extraordinary.
In Forgotten Promise (2012), a powerful twister cascades down from a mottled sky and lands, not on the ground but on the head of a distant, solitary, semi-transparent man standing on rocky shale. On one of the shale rocks is the face of the woman he has betrayed. And so we learn that it is the man's regret that has caused the storm. Or have we? Here Uelsmann has given us some clues, but still leaves a lot to our own imagination.
The photograph of Venice is beautiful in itself, with some witty detailing, and is made haunting by the image of a woman floating in the water. How our eye is caught, and carried down the water into the distance, is exciting, and lets us know that we are in the presence of a master.
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Perhaps the most complex composite, and my favorite among many, is titled Self Reflection; it reveals a wide windowed corridor leading to a larger room, with vegetation outside open windows and spilling into the corridor, where a nude woman lies on her back, hands discreetly covering her breasts. In the far room waits an ominous, shadowy figure, perhaps horned. And in the ceiling of the corridor — I almost missed this, Uelsmann is so subtle — is the image of a man facing the woman. I can't pretend to understand it, but I am grateful that I saw it.
I remain baffled but charmed by a print created in 1969 that includes a tree with bare roots floating in the air in the background, like an alien surveillance scout, and another similar tree hovering in the foreground above a small island, with the shape of the island reflected in the water but with a different interior in the reflection. In the distant background are low-lying but powerful mountains with snow still on their foothills. And there is more, relevant but seemingly tucked away. It's a work of rich art, to be admired if not understood.
Uelsmann's work has been exhibited in more than 100 individual shows across the United States and abroad, and resides in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Chicago Art Institute; the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.; the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; and the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan, among others.
This exhibition is elaborate and complex, and one not to be missed, but please leave time to study and ponder Uelsmann's art — he deserves it, and you will be rewarded.