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Monthly Masters DiscussionMonthly Masters' Discussion: Aug 2017 - Composites: Art, Photo or Heresy? "Journey Into Night" by Jerry Uelsmann

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Monthly Masters' Discussion: Aug 2017 - Composites: Art, Photo or Heresy? "Journey Into Night" by Jerry Uelsmann

Post by minniev » Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:15 pm

One of the most enduring controversies in photography concerns the classification of photographic composites. Are they photography? Are they heinous abominations? Can they be seriously considered as art? Jerry Uelsmann has worked almost entirely in the world of photomontage since the 1950s and still does all his creations in the darkroom. He’s had shows everywhere from MOMA to Paris, won many awards including a Guggenheim, and was recently honored with the LUCIE lifetime achievement award in fine arts. His own history is fascinating so I encourage you to read the biographical materials as well as the support materials about his art.

The support materials will give you far more to reflect on that will an image review. The interview with John Paul Caponigro starts with discussing the common assumption (right or wrong) that photography provides an objective view of reality. Uelsmann goes on to provide insights into his own journey, thinking, and process. He acknowledges that his work was better accepted by artists than by his fellow photographers, even though, as he said: “Wait! Everything I have came from the camera store!”

Uelsmann brushes off the need to pre-visualize, opting instead for what he calls post-visualization, a process by which he gathers photographic elements, then later assembles them into a composition he finds pleasing. He refers to his work as visual myths and claims any meanings and stories they tell are the property of their viewers. He’d seldom gives titles to his works. One of the reasons I chose this one was because it did have a title, a convention that makes an image a bit easier to discuss online.

If you will, review some of the materials, and speak your mind about the validity of photographic composites as art, and as photography. These questions may help guide discussion, but don’t confine yourself to them:
1. What do you think of “Journey Into Night”? Is it a photograph? An art work? Both? Neither? Why or why not?
2. What is your feeling about combining photographic elements into new compositions? Is there anything ethically wrong with that? How important is disclosure? Uelsmann says he has bypassed some of those discussions because his compositions are so dream-like and clearly fantastical. Does the intent to present a composite as a reality matter in your opinion about ethicality?
3. Is computer manipulation different from darkroom manipulation? We know it’s different technically but is it different from a point of classifying the result as art or photograph, as ethical or not?
4. Do you use compositing or montaging in your work? What are your feelings about your own work in that area? Have you ever been criticized for a lack of photographic “purity” or for dishonesty? Have you felt personally conflicted? Do you reveal what you did up front, in questioning, or not? What impacted your responses to such questions?
5. If you have a photo composite you’ve created, or one you admire done by someone else, feel free to link/share it in the thread to advance any point of the discussion.


Uelsmann's own site: http://www.uelsmann.net/
In depth interview: https://www.digitalphotopro.com/profiles/jerry-uelsmann-the-alchemist/
Wiki with links https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Uelsmann
Interview http://www.bandwmag.com/articles/jerry-uelsmann-on-the-fringes-of-understanding
NYT Article https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/jerry-uelsmanns-analog-dreams/?_r=0
Caponigro Interview http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/conversations/jerry-uelsmann/
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"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

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Post by PietFrancke » Tue Aug 01, 2017 5:08 pm

One man's heresy is another's religion.

Jerry does what he does. Others come afterwards and provide names and definitions. He walks his own path, making him a revolutionary. And then he keeps walking that path, doing his thing, refining it, learning, growing and the world in a sense moves past him doing the same things perhaps more effectively in the digital world, and the revolutionary has become archaic. So is he revolutionary, or archaic? LOL, no he is just Jerry walking his own path and doing his own thing. Labels serve to make think that we own the thing we label. It is like putting a flag of ownership on Mars, or on the beaches of a new world. The natives might lose, but they were there first after all...

Jerry seeks impact, emotional impact. He wants the viewer to discover his own story. Similar to the world of dreams, meanings are hidden and emotions are strong and powerful. The story told becomes a subjective truth that may be greater than a literal truth. We see poetry rather than a news journal. We see mysticism rather than mathematics. Jerry prefers mystery and ambiguity to the mundane cut and dry.

And his images become the bricks with which he builds other images. Again the comparison to dreaming is invited. What we dream is made from fragments that we have seen and lived, and a tapestry is created that links us to the things that make us who we are.

For me, ultimately, Jerry shows us that photography is but a tool. It is just a tool in an arsenal of tools that make up our personal workflows. We use our tools to create things, things that hopefully stir our hearts and open our minds. His lesson is that we are to do the things that interest and excite us and to choose and follow our own paths. Do the things that you are passionate about and know that your success will be measured by the bean counters that come afterwards - or not.

But know that regardless, you have lived and you were who you were supposed to be!

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Post by Duck » Tue Aug 01, 2017 5:18 pm

This is an interesting subject, thank you for choosing this.

Immediately I was reminded of the art/photographic manipulations of Jeffrey Knight (JK) Potter who also created some fantastic compositions in the darkroom. It amazes me how precise analog assemblage can be. Here is one of his pieces from the book "Horripilations" that has inspired tattoo artwork from me in the past;

e5111[1].jpg
Alive and Screaming (1985)
e5111[1].jpg (68.18 KiB) Viewed 1024 times

[heading]Is it art or is it photography?[/heading]
Like anything else in the art world, photographic assemblage is subjective and you will always have people on all three sides of the fence. It is no wonder, though, that his work is better received by artists than by photographers even though he clearly works in the photographic realm. Art, in general, isn't divided like photography is (art, journalistic, scientific, surveillance, etc.) simply because of the nature of the camera as a tool is so broad. Anyone can pick up a camera and take a picture, what that picture becomes is up to the intent and skill of the person holding the camera. There are also more blurred lines in the world of photography; commercial photography and scientific photography crossing over into fine art photography, Fine art photography crossing over into commercial photography, industrial and surveillance photography being lumped in because they use a 'camera', etc.

For artists it is a little easier, the tools of the trade are designed specifically for the creation of art. No one picks up a filbert brush and oil paint to write a memo or a mallet and chisel to carve out selfie. Artist's tools, in general, are for creating "art". Let's take it one step further. An artist can pick up a chainsaw, a tool generally not considered an art tool but rather a utilitarian work tool, and use it to create a piece of art and they would be perceived as a creative genious. Why? Because the artist is utilizing a tool in an unorthodox manner not intended for the creation of art. However, the underlying foundation to this is the creation of 'something' from 'nothing', relying solely on the imagination and skill of the artist. Pictorialists tried doing this early on with photography, however the photographer isn't creating something from nothing. They are creating something from some thing whether it's a quick snapshot or a full blown photoshoot with sets, models, stylists and crew.

[heading]Is history to blame?[/heading]
Photo manipulation (analog and now digital) is as old as photography itself and no industry has exploited it better than commercial photography. Early manipulations were designed with one goal in mind, to lie to the buying public. Products were made alluring, models were made sexier, food was made more appealing. Nothing was real. It was a false reality, if you will and it was not considered art by any definition they gave it. To have 'art' images that blatantly utilizes the same photographic tricks done by the large ad agencies was like having Dorothy pulling back the proverbial curtain. Today it is common knowledge that everything we look at has been digitally manipulated in some fashion. As a matter of fact, the new frontier echoing the past is hyper-real 3D renderings. Same mentality from yesteryear, new technology from today.

There is also the perception of difficulty. To the uninitiated, photoshopping an image seems like an easy task requiring no artistic skill therefore any work derived by such skills are easily dismissed as not being art. After all, "you're only pressing a button and pasting stuff together! How hard can that be?" A similar correlation in the art world would be a traditional oil painter scoffing at a modernist who simply, "throws paint on a canvas and calls it art."

[heading]The burden is on who?[/heading]
Traditional art has gone through its various metamorphoses; egotistical artists chest beating their skills in order to gain commissions to egotistical artists scoffing at established conventions in order to 'stick it to the man'. Art has also gone from "art for the glory of God" to "art for art's sake". It seems both art and photography are steered by established practices, common perceptions, social norms and subjectivity of the viewer. All of which fluctuates and changes with the times. So who decides what labels to apply?

Obviously the pundits would claim first dibs if it were up to them. After all, they know everything there is to know about everything. :lol:

A few centuries ago it would have been the Church. At the turn of the last century it was the State. Today, thanks to social media, it is the Masses and they are quick to dish out disapproval. Unfortunately for photographers the masses have altered the accepted business model of photography forever. They are also challenging it so work like Uelsmann and Potter is becoming more accepted though it will never carry the label of photography. If we stop to think on it, this type of work already has a label (aside from photo manipulation), though not one that has flattering connotations, and that label is "Photoshopped". :spank:

[heading]Two sides of the same coin[/heading]
Thanks to the popularity of Adobe we have added the colloquialism "photoshop" to our lexicon to be synonymous with the the term "photo manipulation" (think Xerox Corporation and the colloquial "making a xerox" rather than "making photocopy".) Unfortunately the term photoshopped has a negative connotation because of the bad press the act of photo manipulation has gotten in the commercial world. Remember all the lies ad agencies have been feeding the Masses? Well, it caught up to them and is forcing the industry to change gear (body shaming is a no-no) and laws to be passed (the food portrayed must be the food being sold).

While that type of photo manipulation has been garnering negative criticism, photo manipulated fine art has been welcomed with open arms. The most prevalent being in the movie industry. The same creative process and techniques used in the movie industry is also utilized by some of the best photo assemblage artists today. While the Masses understand it is photoshopped they also understand it is not for the purpose of deception but rather to entertain the sense and it is intent that wins the hearts of the Masses.

Which leads to the aspect of Uelsmann's work. Like Potter, his work lies clearly in the realm of fantasy. It is their desire to make you see something that doesn't exist in a manner that makes you think it could. Nothing does this better than photo manipulation (except 3D rendering now). Foundationally, their work mirrors the work of the surrealist painters that came before them but clearly using a different medium. By utilising imagery that is familiar, their assemblages places them into an altogether different context that evoke an atypical emotion and that is what art, good art, great art, should do.
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Post by minniev » Tue Aug 01, 2017 7:06 pm

PietFrancke wrote:One man's heresy is another's religion.

Jerry does what he does. Others come afterwards and provide names and definitions. He walks his own path, making him a revolutionary. And then he keeps walking that path, doing his thing, refining it, learning, growing and the world in a sense moves past him doing the same things perhaps more effectively in the digital world, and the revolutionary has become archaic. So is he revolutionary, or archaic? LOL, no he is just Jerry walking his own path and doing his own thing. Labels serve to make think that we own the thing we label. It is like putting a flag of ownership on Mars, or on the beaches of a new world. The natives might lose, but they were there first after all...

Jerry seeks impact, emotional impact. He wants the viewer to discover his own story. Similar to the world of dreams, meanings are hidden and emotions are strong and powerful. The story told becomes a subjective truth that may be greater than a literal truth. We see poetry rather than a news journal. We see mysticism rather than mathematics. Jerry prefers mystery and ambiguity to the mundane cut and dry.

And his images become the bricks with which he builds other images. Again the comparison to dreaming is invited. What we dream is made from fragments that we have seen and lived, and a tapestry is created that links us to the things that make us who we are.

For me, ultimately, Jerry shows us that photography is but a tool. It is just a tool in an arsenal of tools that make up our personal workflows. We use our tools to create things, things that hopefully stir our hearts and open our minds. His lesson is that we are to do the things that interest and excite us and to choose and follow our own paths. Do the things that you are passionate about and know that your success will be measured by the bean counters that come afterwards - or not.

But know that regardless, you have lived and you were who you were supposed to be!


Piet, thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree with your assessment about photography as a tool kit. A camera has no more inherent limitations than a hammer or a brush, it is simply something we use for the purpose we intend. For some it may be strict documentation, and that is fine. For others, it may be a means to "harvest pixels" for use in another product entirely. There are many uses for most tools, some creative and some more mundane. Our limits are self-imposed and entirely justified by our own intents. And each person's ethical considerations are likewise their own.

But I confess being drawn to the wild side moreso than the documentarian side.
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

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Post by minniev » Tue Aug 01, 2017 7:23 pm

Duck, thank you for a remarkable essay on this subject. I have often been challenged to consider composites as a moral issue, in discussions with other photographers, with traditional artists, and in terms of competitions or sales of images. Your thoughts from the perspective of commercial photography add new information to this whole dilemma.

While I agree about the movie industry's influence, I do think the bias against "photoshop" and manipulation in general does persist into the fine art realm as well, and it both is and is not the fault of those within the photo manipulation community. The sanitization of landscape photography into perfect, ethereal dreamscapes (all the while denying the "photoshopping") is one area where I see that effect. Perhaps it is past time for the photoshopping to come out of the closet and be accepted for what it is, a set of creative tools, rather than an ethical rabbit to chase.
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

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Post by Ernst-Ulrich Schafer » Tue Aug 01, 2017 7:24 pm

Just came across this in my news feed. I can remember seeing his lst works. Things have grown and changed. What a master.

http://www.21steditions.com/titles#/mothandbonelight/
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Post by Duck » Tue Aug 01, 2017 7:53 pm

Doing a quick search I found his original prints are selling in the collectors market for between $2,000 and $3,000. Incredible.
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Post by rmalarz » Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:44 pm

It is interesting that you should post this at this particular time. I was just toying with the idea of working on some Jerry Uelsmann inspired photos. His method does not involve any digital work. He has numerous enlargers and each contains negatives which will eventually be exposed to the various areas of the print. He works out how to index the easel for each portion of the photograph and walks the easel down the row of enlargers, almost like an assembly line. He has incredible skill and imagination.

I think it's photography. A different kind, but still photography. He takes and processes numerous negatives and then, when inspiration strikes, assembles the various parts into a whole.
--Bob

minniev wrote:One of the most enduring controversies in photography concerns the classification of photographic composites. Are they photography? Are they heinous abominations? Can they be seriously considered as art? Jerry Uelsmann has worked almost entirely in the world of photomontage since the 1950s and still does all his creations in the darkroom. He’s had shows everywhere from MOMA to Paris, won many awards including a Guggenheim, and was recently honored with the LUCIE lifetime achievement award in fine arts. His own history is fascinating so I encourage you to read the biographical materials as well as the support materials about his art.

The support materials will give you far more to reflect on that will an image review. The interview with John Paul Caponigro starts with discussing the common assumption (right or wrong) that photography provides an objective view of reality. Uelsmann goes on to provide insights into his own journey, thinking, and process. He acknowledges that his work was better accepted by artists than by his fellow photographers, even though, as he said: “Wait! Everything I have came from the camera store!”

Uelsmann brushes off the need to pre-visualize, opting instead for what he calls post-visualization, a process by which he gathers photographic elements, then later assembles them into a composition he finds pleasing. He refers to his work as visual myths and claims any meanings and stories they tell are the property of their viewers. He’d seldom gives titles to his works. One of the reasons I chose this one was because it did have a title, a convention that makes an image a bit easier to discuss online.

If you will, review some of the materials, and speak your mind about the validity of photographic composites as art, and as photography. These questions may help guide discussion, but don’t confine yourself to them:
1. What do you think of “Journey Into Night”? Is it a photograph? An art work? Both? Neither? Why or why not?
2. What is your feeling about combining photographic elements into new compositions? Is there anything ethically wrong with that? How important is disclosure? Uelsmann says he has bypassed some of those discussions because his compositions are so dream-like and clearly fantastical. Does the intent to present a composite as a reality matter in your opinion about ethicality?
3. Is computer manipulation different from darkroom manipulation? We know it’s different technically but is it different from a point of classifying the result as art or photograph, as ethical or not?
4. Do you use compositing or montaging in your work? What are your feelings about your own work in that area? Have you ever been criticized for a lack of photographic “purity” or for dishonesty? Have you felt personally conflicted? Do you reveal what you did up front, in questioning, or not? What impacted your responses to such questions?
5. If you have a photo composite you’ve created, or one you admire done by someone else, feel free to link/share it in the thread to advance any point of the discussion.


Uelsmann's own site: http://www.uelsmann.net/
In depth interview: https://www.digitalphotopro.com/profiles/jerry-uelsmann-the-alchemist/
Wiki with links https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Uelsmann
Interview http://www.bandwmag.com/articles/jerry-uelsmann-on-the-fringes-of-understanding
NYT Article https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/jerry-uelsmanns-analog-dreams/?_r=0
Caponigro Interview http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/conversations/jerry-uelsmann/
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Post by minniev » Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:24 pm

Ernst-Ulrich Schafer wrote:Just came across this in my news feed. I can remember seeing his lst works. Things have grown and changed. What a master.

http://www.21steditions.com/titles#/mothandbonelight/


thanks for adding this Ernst.
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Post by minniev » Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:26 pm

Duck wrote:Doing a quick search I found his original prints are selling in the collectors market for between $2,000 and $3,000. Incredible.


I can see why they are gaining value. Might there be more appreciation for his unusual and very original work in modern times, when compositing is done differently but is somewhat more accepted at least in some quarter?
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

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