Jerry Uelsmann, untitled, 1976

Jerry Uelsmann (1934 – ), untitled, 1976, gelatin silver print. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Fund, 2003.022.

Long before Photoshop enabled photographers to easily layer and manipulate multiple files to create strange, surreal montages, Jerry Uelsmann produced a groundbreaking body of work that challenged the very definition of photography as a medium. Working intuitively with multiple negatives in as many as seven different enlargers, Uelsmann used nineteenth-century techniques of composite photography to craft imaginary dreamscapes and allegories.

From the beginning of his career, nature has played an important part in Uelsmann’s transformations. Trees, seedpods, nests, roots, and clouds all interact in unexpected ways with natural or human-made environments. In this untitled photograph from 1976, the architectural setting gives way to a cloud-filled sky in which the sun breaks through to light the desk below, where a tiny person stands on an open book.

Countering earlier twentieth-century photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams, who looked for the decisive moment or previsualized the finished photograph before exposure, Uelsmann uses a process he calls “post-visualization” as he responds to the various parts that make up the whole of an image. Atmosphere, in the largest sense of the word, infuses Uelsmann’s work, as he builds moody, melancholy, even humorous images that challenge our preconceived notions about the natural world and our place in it.