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Devices And Desires

Uelsmann oeuvre offers hours of interpretation


"The camera," says Jerry N. Uelsmann, "is a fluid way of encountering that other reality."

The famous photographer's formal devices for conveying his special brand of surreal mystery are many. A dozen of Uelsmann's dream-like "manipulated photographs," currently on view in Other Realities at Hodges Taylor Gallery, provide some rich examples of his mastery. All 12 silver prints in this suite are 20" x 16" images, meticulously printed.

The 68-year-old Uelsmann is one of those photo superstars whose oeuvre has been extensively written about, yet whose work remains fresh. A master of the slick photo-montage, Uelsmann combines images to make his magic in the darkroom, with a bank of separate enlargers ­ one for each negative. You can see him do this on his web page.

Symmetry, or a close approximation, is one formal device that Uelsmann employs almost consistently. "Untitled, 2001 (House with Dress in Foreground)" is a common enough Uelsmann image: A house in the upper part of the photograph, framed by slender and more massive tree trunks, sits within a woodsy background. Like so many of the photographer's compositions, this one is basically symmetrical, with a horizontally divided picture plane that places the background above, the foreground below. Mysteriously, the image of a discarded dress is laid upon the flowered carpet of the foreground layer. The patterned "fabric" of the dress is actually the superimposed image of a clouded sky. The foreground flawlessly merges its floral pattern with that of the "real" flower- and leaf-strewn floor.

"Untitled, 1991 (Floating Rock / Colorado)" contains other appropriated elements from nature. A boulder of immense proportion hangs in the cloud-filled sky, like one of Magritte's floating rocks, mysteriously poised above the water. That familiar Uelsmann composition ­ horizontally divided picture plane with matching pools of water below, and in the sky above ­ form concentric circles and suggest birth, or emergence. The image of the rock and the water, framed by "Ansel Adams' trees" on the left, "Adams' mountains" to the right, forms a symmetrically based composition. The image can be appreciated for its mysteries, its visual tension, or both.

Besides woods and trees, human hands are another favored device in Uelsmann's visual repertoire. In "Untitled, 1983 (Cloud-gate / Hands Through Sphere)," a metallic-surfaced orb resting in the foreground of a gated courtyard cracks open as a pair of male hands, in an Escher-like pose, emerge, suggesting birth . . . of an artist? From a distance, the hands resemble leaves, and the whole, sphere plus hands, resembles an apple. The imagery is rich with possibility and interpretation. Poetic. The photograph seems to capture an instant even though we know the artist manipulated many negatives in the darkroom, with a series of enlargers, to achieve its complexity. As in previous examples, an overall sense of symmetry holds all together, from the puffy clouds framing the arched gate above to the courtyard pebbles below.

Each print in the dozen on view is like a poem. Though the vast majority here have outdoor settings and contain important bits of "nature," they're "interior" in a "psychological" sense. And the only photo featuring a fully realized interior, "Untitled, 1990 (Sandcastle in Room)," includes a glimpse of a garden outside the window. One of the few that's not strictly symmetrical, "Sandcastle in Room" depicts a drawing room in a bourgeois "castle." The room is smart, elegant, a cinematic slice of cultured life. The string across the seat of the Queen Anne chair reveals the room's museum status. The print quality of "Sandcastle" allows for incredible detail: the Greek key design on the chair railing along the walls is pristine and clear; the intense shadows define areas; the carved textures of the cropped, ornamental edge of a framed picture, which hints at a large painted portrait of a "gentleman," are sculpturally articulated. But as the parenthetical title reveals, the first thing you really see is the foreground of the picture, where, instead of a carpet, an elaborate sandcastle spreads across the floor.

Interpretations are subjective, and each viewer brings her own. It's fun to discuss these multiple meanings with friends and colleagues when viewing these images.

In "Kiefer's Message" (2001), we see another Uelsmann tradition: a big sky above, bigger than the lower portion of the horizontally divided picture plane. In the distance, a solitary male stands thigh-high within a field, where the texture of the ground resembles ­ or is ­ an Anselm Kiefer painting. This nod to the contemporary neo-expressionist German artist, who uses twigs and straw in his massive paintings, likewise refers to the lonely, silhouetted figures in certain German Romantic paintings, such as those by Casper David Friedrich, admired in turn by Kiefer.

Is this a pun intended for the picture-literate crowd who think of Kiefer as the inheritor of color-field painting?

The house in "Untitled, 1982 (Tree-Building)" has grown impressively oak-like roots, evocative of great age. This picture, pairing nature with human artifice, is built with symmetry, but not a mirroring symmetry; subtle counterpoints exist within the composition. In another photo featuring a great tree, "Untitled, 1994 (Tree-Goddess)," Uelsmann does utilize perfectly symmetrical mirroring, with tree tops superimposed above. This mirroring is less vital somehow, than the magnificently evocative "Tree-Building," which deserves its great fame.

Although Jerry M. Uelsmann has been a part of the photographic establishment for many years, there's still something fresh to see in his works. With prevailing moods of mystery, yearning and nostalgia, provoked by the presence of small, empty boats, parts of statues, hands or trees, these pictures often impart an overall feeling of being privy to the artist's clever interior monologue. But not quite. Something always hovers just out of mental reach.

See these famous works in real life through March at Hodges Taylor Gallery. Visiting the web site at is a good way to explore further. n

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