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Jerry Uelsmann

Text from Jonathan Green, American Photography: A Critical History

Jerry Uelsmann's photomontages are perhaps the most significant silver printmaking achievement of the sixties. His photographs are a curious hybrid of themes, motifs, and sensibilities. In a single Uelsmann print one might find elements of Pop and Expressionism, photography as comedy, photography as self-knowledge, aspects of surreal and romantic fantasy, and formalist and conceptual experiment. Uelsmann's prints are as pristine and seamless as Ansel Adams's and as expressionistic as the work of his "photographic godfathers," as he calls them, Ralph Hattersley, Minor White, and Henry Holmes Smith. No current photographer has successfully imitated Uelsmann's eclectic vision, but his influence can be traced widely to photographers as divergent as Meridel Rubinstein and Robert Cumming.

Uelsmann owes a great deal to Rauschenberg's and Cornell's notion of photography as a collecting activity, but he may also be seen as photography's first successful answer to Pop Art. His work bears the same ironic and parodic relationship to traditional photographic aesthetics that Lichtenstein's work bears to the aesthetics of traditional painting. Uelsmann's prints are gatherings of the most extreme and frequently outrageous material. Like Rauschenberg and many Pop artists, Uelsmann employs subject matter that is prototypically American and peculiarly Southern. It is quintessential Americana: gimcracks, gewgaws, whim-whams, and whimsies of the nostalgic past. He peoples his photographs with old valentines, humorous ceramic figurines, old photographs, dolls, the American flag, an eagle, amusement park rides, Gothic statuary, and all sorts of bric-a-brac. This basic Americana he combines with the most pretentious, shopworn romantic iconography: seed pods, a painter's easel, floating eyes, decaying ruins, tombstones, cloaked women, dead birds, sunsets, and primary biological forms. At its best, the effect is a dazzling integration of the traditional mythology of art with American popular culture.

The critic William Parker has, with good reason, compared Uelsmann to the painter Magritte. The resemblance is, however, only superficial, for Magritte's sensibility is ultimately European and too surreal for Uelsmann. Joseph Comell is a more fitting analogy. Cornell, like Uelsmann, managed to combine commonplace Americana with the sumptuous textures and images of high art. Both created mysterious objects, souvenirs, and merry amusements.

Uelsmann's work was first read as deeply serious. Yet on re-evaluation it can be seen as a gentle mockery of the metaphoric tradition, a body of work equally concerned with visual puns, mental images, game playing, and process. The image of Uelsmann as a purely expressionistic photographer has been unfortunately antithetical to the development of his own work and flamboyant humor. It might be argued that Uelsmann, never having been acknowledged as the master Pop artist and humorist of contemporary photography, began to take his own work too seriously. It now appears that he has backed himself into a cornr, merely repeating without comic relief the mannerisms of the earlier work.


 


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