by A. D. Coleman
The photomontages of Jerry N. Uelsmann are as instantly recognizable as any photographic images made in the second half of the 20th century. Today they stand as the progenitors of an approach to photographic image-making so well-established and widespread that it’s strange to recall the storm of controversy that raged around them as they first began appearing in the early 1960s. Partly due to Uelsmann’s consistent and determined efforts, the working definition of what constitutes the full field of ideas and strategies in contemporary photography is a far more expansive one than that which was operative when he set out on his path.
Unlike photocollage, with which it’s sometimes confused, classic photomontage is generated on photographic paper or film and often looks — at least at first glance — like unmanipulated imagery. Even when the combinatorial nature of the finished work is recognized it may offer little or no indication of where one component ends and another begins. Those who employ it deliberately propose a radical alternative to the naturalism that has been the stock-in-trade of photography since its inception. This traditional form of photomontage provides unsettling evidence that, paradoxically, although the camera must always address something in front of the lens, some photographs portray events that never happened.
Photomontage first attracted widespread attention in the mid-nineteenth century through the work of the Britishers Henry Peach Robinson and O. G. Rejlander, whose techniques and results were the subject of heated debate. In the 1920s it became a staple of modernist practice in Europe. But in the U.S. photo scene after World War II, the “purist” approach advocated by such figures as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams was dominant. They preached what Adams called “pre-visualization” — the full realization of the image at the moment of exposure; by their lights, any subsequent tampering with the data on the negative was anathema.
Uelsmann set out to demonstrate that there was another way. In his approach, the darkroom became a locus for what the photographer refers to as “in-process discovery.” Eventually, he developed his printmaking skills to the point where he could blend any number of those components seamlessly into one final image. (Eschewing the expedient of the copy negative, which many photomontagists employ as a labor-saving device, he continues to make each gelatin-silver print of any given image by reassembling the component negatives and starting from the beginning.) By the middle 1960s he’d produced a body of work that proved the viability of photomontage as a contemporary image-making strategy, along with a theory of “post-visualization.”
From the beginning, Uelsmann has elaborated a sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly autobiographical dream-world. Fundamentally, he’s a wanderer through inner space, a lyric poet using a new language to recount his adventures. These images resist easy categorization: to label Uelsmann a surrealist, a pantheist, a mythologist, or a diarist is to disregard other, equally significant aspects of his work. What seems inarguable is that, in addition to proving the validity of his approach by producing imagery that at its best is unsettling, enchanting, magical, and oddly melancholy, Uelsmann has demonstrated a remarkable consistency of vision.
It seems to be Uelsmann’s fate to have established darkroom-generated photomontage as legitimate and viable within classic photographic practice by bringing it to its pinnacle of virtuosic expression, only to witness the obsolescing of that practice in its entirety by the onslaught of electronic imaging. But in building a wide international audience for his own work and encouraging his colleagues in their parallel experiments, he helped prepare that receptive soil in which computer-generated imagery has now taken root. It’s safe to say that no future study of the history of photomontage will be considered seriously unless it takes the theory, the practice, the teaching, and — most importantly of all — the photographs of Jerry Uelsmann into account.
© Copyright AD Coleman, shall not be reproduced in any form without permission.
A. D. 柯曼
©版权所有 A. D. 柯曼，未经许可不得以任何形式转载。