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Matinee: 'Jerru Uelsmann' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

13 June 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the eighty-ninth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Jerru Uelsmann.

In this nearly eight-minute video from the Pix Channel, Uelsmann does all the talking. And he does it while you're looking at his fascinating photomontages and watching him finish up in the darkroom.

He also spends a good deal of time in front of an old upright piano, the sort of heirloom no one wants any more and is, consequently, usually sent to the dump instead of a new home.

That struck us as something of a metaphor for art, which is what Uelsmann is talking about.

You have to have a tolerance for uncertainty if you want to be an artist.

He doesn't just talk about it any more than he just sits in front of the piano. He plays the piano. And he practices art, amused that an element of an image he took decades ago pairs very nicely with something he took just a couple of years ago.

But then he has a style all his own. A style in which the image isn't complete when you press the shutter, he says. He doesn't expect to wake up one day with a new head and shoot street photography.

He speaks candidly about images that emerge from confusion and challenge, that you have doubts about. If you do something predictable, you've been there before, he says. Art is an adventure, not a guided tour.

So self doubt, he says, is part of the creative process. You have to have a tolerance for uncertainty if you want to be an artist.

There's no room for compromise, though.

Why would you compromise? he wonders. So much of the real world inevitably involves compromise. Art, in contrast, requires none. If he can improve an image one percent, he'll do it.

Another unique aspect to art, he says (adding that he constantly has to remind himself of it), is that there's more than one right answer. There's a lot of risk-taking but what's the big deal about taking a risk in art? You're not going to destroy the world. But when you take risks, real growth occurs.

He's been true to himself, he says, even if the manipulated image, the one created after the shutter button has been pressed, still isn't always well received. Is that photography? people wonder.

No one ever talks about audience but everybody needs one, at least one other person and sometimes a larger audience that can support you. That may not match the myth of the lonely artist, but it rings true.

That may be because the work itself does have an impact. You look at Edward Weston's pepper, he says, and you can't shop for vegetables the same any more.

"There's a way in which that intense perceptual -- I don't know what to call it, you know -- thing that happens. It really alters your consciousness."

He ends with a joke about a critic and an art dealer that emphasizes the real work has nothing to do with pleasing critics or befriending art dealers.

It's playing that piano.


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