Jerry: It was the late 1950s. I did a little bit then and then it really took hold once I went to Florida in 1960.
I had the benefits of studying with Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University. He had worked with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in Chicago and was open to all kinds of experimentation. He actually made photographs by refracting light through syrup poured on glass.
Chris and Larry:: What led you to see the power in collage? At that time, straight photography as done by Edward Weston or Ansel Adams was considered the correct way to do photography.
Jerry: I had become restless with trying to find an image that satisfied me in camera. The idea that the creative gesture in photography was when you clicked the shutter was popular when I was a graduate student. A lot of times I found that if I thought too much about the image, I’d talk myself out of shooting, or I ended up with a lot of images that I thought were okay, but not quite good enough.
When I studied photography at RIT each darkroom had one enlarger. Then when I started teaching we had a group darkroom. I was still using one enlarger, which was labor intensive for multiple printing. One day while I was waiting for some prints to wash, I looked across at the enlargers and thought to myself that if I had the negatives in different enlargers and simply moved the paper, the speed with which I could explore things or line them up would increase a hundred times. That was the moment that changed the way I worked with multiple images.
The other element, which was really a key factor, was that once I began teaching, I ended up being the only photographer in an art department. I was around creative people who were not photographers and who didn’t have their images occur in a fraction of a second.
Once I began exploring some of the options in the darkroom, I had tremendous support from my friends on the arts faculty. But when I went to New York to show people what I was doing they would be excited and say, “it’s very, very interesting, but it’s not photography.”
At the time photography’s highest form was seen in the work of photographers like Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. If you study art history, you’ll see that there was a conscious effort to define the separate mediums. Painting was oil on canvas, and sculpture involved traditional materials like stone, wood or metal. And the photograph was defined as a camera conceived silver gelatin print.
Chris and Larry:: Well, you certainly had the support of the art world. You had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967.
Jerry: Yes, and that opened all kinds of doors; it was like being blessed by the Pope. The irony is that John Szarkowski, who gave me that show, later became a champion of photographers like Diane Arbus, Gary Winograd, and Lee Friedlander and became less supportive of the experimental tradition in photography.
Chris and Larry:: How did you start out learning photography?
Jerry: I went to Cooley High School in inner city Detroit. I had terrible grades, but photography was a hobby. I worked part-time helping a photographer at a studio where I’d load film holders and carry a second strobe unit when they shot weddings. Eventually, during high school, I was shooting weddings.
Then I went to a two-year program RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) to be a portrait photographer. While I was there RIT expanded into a four-year institution with both a photographic science and illustration programs. Beaumont Newhall, who wrote the first popular history of photography book and was director of George Eastman House, began teaching. Then Minor White was hired. Minor would talk about images that happened when the spirit came down and things like that. Until then Ralph Hattersley had been the only RIT professor with a creative attitude towards photography. Hattersley planted a lot of seeds, introducing me to the concept that photography could be used for self-expression. Until then I had thought of photography as doing assignments for others.
At the same time I was at RIT, Bruce Davidson was there. Pete Turner was there. Carl Chiarenza, who went on to get a Ph.D. from Harvard in photo history and Peter Bunnell were there. We had a critical mass for open-ended thinking and discussion about what photography could be. These individuals expanded my ideas about what photography could be. I really feel blessed by that because had things gone differently, I could have been a portrait photographer in Detroit.
After Rochester, I went on to Indiana University. I found myself very disillusioned with the audiovisual program I was in. Then Minor told me I should look up Henry Holmes Smith in the art department, and I started taking some courses with him. I asked if I could change programs and work on my Master of Fine Arts degree in the art department. Henry’s first response was “If you want to go on in art you have to be independently wealthy.” I also had to take and pass an art history class to be admitted to the program, which I did.
At the time you could have gathered everybody working with photography as a fine art around a dining room table. Even Ansel Adams was still doing a lot of commercial work. Photography as art had just not received a lot of acceptance.
Chris and Larry:: It seems you were assembling your education like you assemble your images. You were synthesizing elements of understanding from the art world and the photography world. And at that time many people still saw photography as a craft, not an experimental art form.
Jerry: Well your comment is right on. That’s exactly it. There’s actually quote in Weston’s Daybooks, where he goes to a museum and he sees something that he really likes and thinks, “God, that’s something I could use”. He thought that you use those things that are by rights of understanding yours. So as various concepts were introduced to me, I would think, “This is incredible.” Minor was the first role model I had who truly did no commercial photography. He did creative photography and taught and then he hung exhibits. I didn’t know people like that existed before. But I did, as you mentioned, bring together various aspects of my educational encounters to create whoever I am, my identity as an image-maker.
Chris and Larry:: Let’s talk more about your creative process. When you’re seeking what you have called a ‘reality that transcends surface reality’, where do you begin? Where do you find the inspiration to choose the elements and to assemble the picture as versed to taking a photograph?
Jerry: My creative process begins when I get out with the camera and interact with the world. A camera is truly a license to explore. There are no uninteresting things. There are just uninterested people. For me to walk around the block where I live could take five minutes. But when I have a camera, it could take five hours. You just engage in the world differently. If you can get to a point where you respond emotionally, not intellectually, with your camera there’s a whole world to encounter. There’s a lot of source material once you have the freedom of not having to complete an image at the camera.
Of course as I developed a way of building images in the darkroom, this also fed back into the way in which I saw the world. So if I find an interesting tree or rock I think, “Gee, that could be a wonderful background for something.” I begin to build a vocabulary based on things that I encounter and then I start photographing things specifically for use in my darkroom. I may photograph objects on a light box so they have a white background or shoot things on black velvet so I can sandwich those negatives later in the darkroom
But my initial approach is very non-intellectual. I just can’t emphasize that enough. Today there is a lot of conceptually based art that begins with a particular theory and then the individual makes the images to fit. It’s like an assignment, all planned and then they just follow through and do the work. My approach is a lot less premeditated
Chris and Larry:: More of a spontaneous response to the world?
Jerry: Yes, and as a result I think my work has been very challenging for some people to deal with. A lot of it is psychologically and emotionally based. That’s harder to write about than art that is theory-based, as much contemporary art and post-modernism is. Plus, over the course of the year I make some images that are very playful, others that are very dark. Some of them no one would want to have on their wall. But I’m the first audience, so I’m making them for my own satisfaction.
Chris and Larry:: Your work has been analyzed in terms of Carl Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconsciousness and its concept of Archetype. Do you see your work that way?
Jerry: Well, yes. And, in today’s art world French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s theory of multiple meanings is also having an influence. There’s not a common syntax in a lot of visual material so people respond to it differently. When you have subjects that are really open-ended, like a floating rock or a tree or whatever, that causes the consciousness of the viewer to come up with their own way of connecting with that image. It’s the audience that completes the cycle.
This, to me, is the wonderful part of photography and all the arts. There is a kind of an emotional impact that can be felt when you see certain images. It goes beyond communication, as we know it. Once you have seen Edward Weston’s photograph of the pepper, you can’t pass them in the grocery store without thinking about these things as aesthetic objects. Weston’s vision took a common vegetable to a new level. That’s the aspect of art that I like.
Chris and Larry:: Your work can be seen as very complex, or quite simple.
Jerry: The joke that I tell when I lecture to art students is ‘what happens when you cross a post-modernist with a used car salesman?’ The answer is you get an offer you can’t understand. That always draws a big laugh from the college students because they’re required to read stuff that is so complex that much of it doesn’t make any sense, at least not to me.
Chris and Larry:: You’ve spoken about risk taking and even how self-doubt can be part of the creative process. Can you tell us more about that?
Jerry: Well, I do think, particularly the way I work, the better images occur when you’re moving to the fringes of your own understanding. That’s where self-doubt and risk taking are likely to occur. It’s when you trust what’s happening at a non-intellectual non-conscious level that you can produce work that later resonates, often in a way that you can’t articulate a response to. So much of what we consider knowledge involves being able to state something in words. But there is another level at which things impact us in a visual way that we really can’t articulate a response to.
Chris and Larry:: But nonetheless, we have a visceral or an internal connection to some of the elements.
Jerry: Right. That’s important. I’ve enjoyed teaching photography to all kind of students from beginning to graduate level, and I’ve always felt that walking around with their cameras gave them all kinds of insights that were as important as spending hours in the library.
Chris and Larry:: You have for many years been the acknowledged master of multiple printing and the art of physically collaged images in the darkroom. I’d like to pull a quote out of your new book, Other Realities, which I think it’s truly eloquent. “I am sympathetic to the current digital revolution and excited by the visual options created by the computer. However, I feel my creative process remains intrinsically linked to the alchemy of the darkroom” We’ve talked mostly about the aesthetic of your work. Perhaps we can talk a bit about your technique and the digital revolution that is going on in photography.
Jerry: It’s interesting how many people assume it’s a competition. Actually, Photoshop has generated a much broader audience for my work. When I started people questioned if my work was really even photography, it was so different than the Group f64 approach. Now there are new audiences for my work. And young people who are learning digital skills discover that the real challenge is coming up with an image that resonates, first of all, with your self and hopefully, with an audience. They can learn all these new techniques and think that they’re easier to use, but creating great images isn’t about the tools.
Chris and Larry:: Your wife, Maggie Taylor, is a major digital artist.
Jerry: Yes, and she’s having huge success. She’s a wonderful image-maker. We both actively engage in the image making process, and work a seven-day week. It’s not uncommon for her to be at the computer and me to be in the darkroom many evenings.
I see the incredible options that Photoshop provides. But the bottom line is the technique has to fit with ideas and images. I fell in love with the alchemy of the photographic process and to this day, watching that print come up in the developer is magic for me. I still find it a wonderful, challenging experience. It’s also a kind of personal therapy for me just to engage in that process. If travel and other work keeps me out of the darkroom a couple of weeks, I’m not a nice person to be with.
Of course, in order to make art, the frustration of not working has to be greater than the frustration of working. I try to push images as far as I can. Sometimes I go too far, then as time passes, I think, “That was stupid or overkill” or whatever. But you have to go to those places. You can’t just say, “We have an hour to talk on the phone, let’s only be profound.” You start wherever you can and then you work at it.
For me, every year I produce at least 100 different images and at the end of the year, I try to sit back and look at them and find ten that I like. Many years, it’s hard to find those ten.
Chris and Larry:: You’re making judgments when you’re looking at those 100 images that you’ve created, do you solicit feedback from others as well? Or is it mostly an internal dialog with your self?
Jerry: Actually, that’s a good question. I have some very wonderful friends in academia and the arts. For years I’d have these close friends over to look at the prints and I’d ask, “If you could have ten of these prints, which ones would you want?” I didn’t want a heavy intellectual analysis, just personal responses to the images. The crazy thing was that in most cases, there was not a lot of agreement. Obviously, there would be some overlap, but it’s a big world out there and people do bring their own sort of aesthetic to bear. But I’m the one that ultimately has to decide when I send things off to finally be in an exhibit or be published.
It’s not easy. Sometimes I have a kind of cognitive dissonance. There are images that I’ve worked on for so long and have fussed over so much that I think they just have to be good. The amount of energy I put into creating them becomes a factor for me. Those are ones that, as time passes, I might later reject. At other times, an image may just involve two negatives and a simple blend, but people say, “Hey, this is a great one.” I’m thinking, “Well, that was a little too easy.” But that’s really not the case.
Chris and Larry:: So when you build an image from multiple negatives or from multiple images that you’ve assembled, is that process additive or subtractive? Do you start off with one and then add another, or do you start off with a bunch of images and then say, “Let’s put these four together and see what they do”?
Jerry: It’s always additive process. It’s hard to think beyond two or three to begin with.
I’ll give an example. We were just invited to Seoul, Korea, for an opening at a beautiful photography museum over there. We had one day out into the countryside in one of their traditional towns and I had a chance to photograph. I shot about ten rolls of film while I was over there. When I came back, I processed those and the contact sheets then became the foreground for me as I had just been there and made those photographs. Then I started looking at different backgrounds, at combining things with them. It’s interesting because once I start doing it, I remember other negatives and things that might work with some of these things.
Now in the course of the last month, I’ve worked through most of those negatives. I don’t really sense anything else that I can do with them at this point. But I can guarantee that five years from now, some of those things that I’ve rejected will find there way into other images.
Chris and Larry: How much time and experimentation takes place in the darkroom?
Jerry: Once I’m set up I need at least a six-hour block and preferably an eight to ten hour block to do what I do. Computer people have this advantage over the darkroom people by far.
Two weeks ago in Yosemite I shot this rushing water hitting a rock in a stream; it was like this wave in the middle of this river. Then I added a water background with strange clouds. So at the end of the day, I have this all set up. I have my chemistry. I’ve been testing with the different enlargers. That’s when I want the Holy Ghost to tell me with a whisper in my ear, “Just do three of those”. But as I age now, I’m 72, I think, “I’ll never print this again.” I have too much going on. I want to keep making new images.
I made ten prints and then in the middle of the night, I’m thinking, “That shape that this water bows up in is like the shape of an eye.” I hadn’t taken the negatives out of the enlarger yet so the next day, I made 12 prints of the image with the rising water lighter and added an eye. I liked it better. From my point of view, if I can improve an image 2%, I’ll be back in the darkroom the next day.
Chris and Larry:: You mentioned the process of producing the work in the darkroom naturally creates an edition. In fact, even if you just pulled a negative out and put it back in, perhaps somebody with really sharp eyes would notice that there was a slightly different orientation to some of it. Do you then limit, or number editions created like that?
Jerry: This is a constant discussion in my life. All these gallery people now want me to limit editions. But you see, I like the idea that photographs exist as multiple originals.
Ansel Adams was a friend and I asked him back in the early ‘70’s about this issue. Now this is a guy that made 50,000 negatives and he told me back then that he had about 15 images that sold regularly – out of 50,000! And his most popular image, Moonrise, he admitted to making over 1,000 prints. I’ll bet he made at least 2,000 prints of it in all sizes.
Editions made sense when people worked with engravings where the plate wore down as prints were made. An early number of the edition had slightly better quality. But that’s not the case with photography.
To me, it’s a false way of creating value. But there are people out there whose prices are going up and they’re selling out editions and that sort of thing. I’m not in that school. I figure I’m the only guy that’s doing my prints. Once I go to the great darkroom in the sky, whatever prints exist, that’s it.
Chris and Larry:: Still, your initial print runs are small.
Jerry: I’ll just make six prints of something usually. Why make more? People say, “Isn’t it a problem to go back and reprint it?” It’s not a problem - in fact the second time I’m creating these images I can focus on the craft. The first time, you’re doing all the mental gymnastics about what does it mean. When I reprint something I feel that I end up with better prints than I did the first time.
Chris and Larry:: Do you ever scan your finished prints?
Jerry: I actually have people now that are scanning my work so there will be a record of almost everything, certainly my most popular images. In the old days if someone wanted to use an image I had to make copy prints, 8x10 glossies on resin coated paper. But I’m amazed how it’s all done electronically now. I’m really blessed by having a wife with all of these skills.
Chris and Larry:: Do you think it is easier to create images using a computer?
Jerry: It’s equally hard and labor intensive to create an image on the computer as it is in a darkroom. Believe me.
Chris and Larry:: The elegance way you bring images together is impressive. A floating rock will have the right light and shadowing to match the background and other elements appear give it context. That makes even an implausible combination appear possible. Is your understanding of light and perspective intuitive, or is that part of the intellectual process?
Jerry: Its luck and intuition. Photographs in general have an inherent believability, and the overall impact of an image can keep people from noticing some of the slight discrepancies. Also, I prefer negatives shot on overcast days as they give you greater flexibility.
Chris and Larry:: Do you still go out and shoot a lot?
Jerry: I tend to shoot more when we travel. I taught workshops with Ansel in Yosemite for years, but really didn’t get much time to explore the park. Later, when my wife and I visited we explored more, going on pack trips with other artists. I try to go every year. In September we go to the high country, renting tent cabins the last week before snow closes that part of the park. This year after Yosemite we went to San Francisco for a few days, and then to Korea. I shot 23 rolls on that trip.
Chris and Larry:: What kind of equipment are you using now?
Jerry: I’m currently using a Mamiya 7 and a Bronica GS1. I also have an old Bronica that I’ll use for the studio stuff but I want to carry the lightest equipment that will give me the biggest negative I can get and still use roll film.
Chris and Larry:: Have you shot large format or 35mm recently?
Jerry: No. The last time I shot 35mm, other than to make slides, would have been in the early ‘60’s. And when I first went out and taught workshops with Ansel, I found that I could shoot two rolls of film by the time those people had set up their view cameras. They were trying to do the zone system, which I think is overrated. I’d much rather be emotionally involved.
Chris and Larry:: Would you have any advice for those who would like to pursue the fine art market and to use their photographic vision as a creative approach?
Jerry: I know a lot of really wonderful commercial photographers, and every one of them has their personal work in their desk drawer. Ryszard Horowitz is a friend who does major high-end commercial stuff. And believe me; he’s certainly as creative as I am.
There are people like Duane Michaels and who can do both commercial and fine art work. I have a lot of respect for that. People that are only doing very personal fine art photography have to have some support system. If they’re well connected with a gallery in New York, that might do it.
But the art world is constantly changing. There are all kinds of art movements that constantly come into vogue and then fade away. In photography we have the phenomena of the huge color prints done by people like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. They’re amazing to see, but again, there’s a point at which once every museum has one where does that trend go?
I just read an article in last Sunday’s Times where these curators are talking. The one said it’s sad how the emphasis is so much on new that many artists who are doing some of their better work at their mid careers or later careers are being neglected for the sake of constantly showing the new, young kid on the block.
In my own case, if you went to the Museum of Modern Art and said we’d like to see what you have by Uelsmann in the collection, they’ll have some work, but it’ll all be from the ‘60’s. That’s when I was new on the scene.
Chris and Larry:: But you are still working, producing new images all the time.
Jerry: To me, it’s such a rewarding experience to be able to produce personal imagery and have this kind of visual myth emerge over a period of time, making images that can evoke a different perception of our world. We are unique in that we can invent these realities.
Chris and Larry:: And perhaps on some deeper level, even understand them.
Jerry: You bring up a very good point. The understanding can happen at a non-verbal, intuitive level. There are images I have seen done by students of mine whose names I do not remember, but I sure do remember those images, so they’ve made an impact on me.
Chris and Larry:: You taught for 38 years, how did you challenge students to be the most creative and effective photographers they could be?
Jerry: The best teachers answer questions with more interesting questions. That really sums it up. This is what I’ve learned after years of teaching that education is essentially a question raising business.
I expected students to be showing work on a regular basis, because that’s where a lot of the growth occurs, and to show work in process, because people are a lot less defensive. Many places emphasize theory, but I felt strongly that producing images was most important.
I tried to challenge people to define what they were doing, to try to articulate what they thought they were doing. I realize I can’t create a verbal equivalent for my photographs, but we’ve talked for over an hour about what I think I’m doing and they should be able to do that.
I taught graduate students for a lot of my academic career. At that level the students were really quite technically competent. Of course, technique is something you can teach a person because there are specific answers, but if you’re talking about a visual sort of aesthetic experience, that’s different.
I always thought of it as a kind of psychotherapy for which I wasn’t trained. But it’s important to always challenge accepted thinking, particularly your own.
Chris and Larry:: Your lifetime of work shows the influence of that approach.
Jerry: In the end, I aged but my students all remained the same age. That was something that kept me much more in touch with what’s happening in our culture and what was going on in the art world.
What captured your imagination regarding surrealism?Back in the 50s you could read every book on serious photography over the weekend and still have time to go swimming. There wasn’t a lot of material out there dealing with surrealism and photography. Although there were certain movements that occurred, they weren’t really essential to the aesthetic of the photography at that time.
In the world of broad based art, as you go from the 19th into the 20th century, you essentially go from what was outer directed art – that fulfilled the needs of the religious beliefs system or patron who was paying for this, or of the culture to support popular ideas – to art that was inner directed. Then, in the 20th century, it becomes acceptable that the artist believes that they can invent a reality that is personally more meaningful than the ones that are literally given to the eye.
When I was a graduate student, abstract expression was the in thing. There was action painting and all this stuff that transition in belief systems really identified with. If you think about it, photography is a way of making marks on paper. Recently, someone asked me if I could define photography and I said photography is just life remembering itself. The concept that I was known for, post-visualization and pre-visualization, still remains as the dominant aesthetic.
Because of your subject matter, would you agree with me that you weren’t as well received?
Oh yeah. I was around faculty that were printmakers, painters and sculptors– not other photographers. My salary was $5,000/year and this was in 1960-61. We would all pile into the car and drive straight to New York to check out the shows. I would show my photographs to photographers that I know out there. The interesting thing for me was that when I showed my work to these photographers they would tell me it's not photography. I'm in the darkroom for many hours and I buy many of my supplies at the camera store. What am I supposed to call this? It didn’t fall within their perception of what photography should be. There are still people that have problems with my work and they feel it’s not a part of the basic aesthetic of photography.
How does that make you feel? Now you must be having a resurgence or new appreciation of your work given the digital revolution, doing what you did.
It amazes me of how many emails I get from people doing papers on me. There are these books on photoshop where they have a history section and use five of my images, yet there are other books out there that say “100 Photographers You Should Know” and I'm not in there, but I make it because the younger generation. Although many of them assume I'm working a digital end, if I were twenty years younger I would have totally gone over to the digital world.
My process in the darkroom became a part of my creative process. The analog is definitely where I'm at, and my wife Maggie is an amazing digital artist but the learning curve for photoshop is steep. I always say: something good about photoshop, it gives you an immense number of visual options, something bad about photoshop, it gives you an immense number of visual options.
Do you think you could get a New York Gallery now?
I had one for forty years but I don’t understand that part of the art world. But I am happy. I work regularly – it's therapy for me at this point. I’m going to continue making these images regardless .
Do you have any tips for any of the other photographers that try to get grants?
Teaching was my main support system. University of Florida was one of the few universities where you could major in photography, and more schools began to accept that photography could be a part of their fine art program. The graduate students that we were turning out all found jobs teaching. There wasn’t an option to sell your work and live by doing that. I did have two very important grants though. I received the Guggenheim, and that gave me time because when I started teaching I was trying to build enthusiasm for photography. I had to make the slides for the art book using every penny I had. It took a lot of time and energy and once I had the Guggenheim, that gave me a year off where I could just devote myself to solely working in the darkroom. People always ask, “What does it take to be successful image maker.” If you’re an anal-retentive workaholic, that helps. Then I had an NEA grant, which gave me a semester off. At one point I had a faculty development grant here at the university that allowed you to do research without the teaching responsibility. There were various times where those grants were very important. They said we believe in what you’re doing enough that we feel you should have time to really focus on that, but all of those grants were done years ago.
How did it affect you when people didn’t receive you with open arms?
You have to learn to cope with that. I remember a show in San Francisco that I had once and the reviewer said, "Uelsmann’s work fails to reflect current objective structural thinking." Well, what the fuck is that? I don’t know what they're talking about. They obviously didn’t look at the pictures. A lot of the time these people have an agenda and you're somehow supposed to be a part of that temporary thinking. I have always worked through that sort of stuff. Once I'm in the darkroom and by myself, creating the mountain that I'm climbing, I'm trying to please myself. If other people can find ways of relating to the images, that is wonderful, that is a real bonus, but I am not making them for any particular commercial assignment. Obviously I would like everyone to find some way of connecting to the work. To this day there are many major critics or curators that don’t see me as any part of the photo history. I'm someone between the cracks that doesn’t fit with their version.
How did you decide that photo montage was going to be your expression?
I can remember as a graduate student, walking around looking for something, and if you start thinking about it too much – like what does it mean? – there was a point at which that freed me up to ask, what’s wrong with multiple exposure? This is a natural, photographic phenomena. What’s wrong with the negative image? It’s a part of the process and it could be seen on paper. I began exploring what some of the visual options were and it was like building a visual vocabulary.
When you first do these things you’re not sure how you’re going to use it but you see it starts having an effect. If you’re going to use the negative image of someone’s face it instantly gives a psychological dimension to that image, so over the years I tried things in the darkroom. Usually the first time I do things it’s about the technique. It’s like a new word that you don’t quite know how to use but eventually, if you work long enough, it works naturally on some pre-conscious level. You begin exploring these things. There is great acceptance for work that has that dimension but there is, in today’s world, a tremendous emphasis on documentary kind of photography. There was a thing in the paper today about people killed in Syria. If you had photographs of the wounded, you could probably have a museum show because museums are trying to be more topical. I don’t see photography as a competitive sport. It’s wonderful that that kind of imagery is there and that they're are dedicated, innovative photojournalists.
Do you think that seems to be disappearing now?
I don’t want it to totally disappear but I would like them to accept that there are these invented realities that have value that people are creating. There is still a direct connection.
What do you think makes an effective mentor?
Henry Smith asked who, more than anyone else, pushed me into the deep water. He was the man that constantly challenged what you believe in and what you care about. He just pushed the limits. When I taught I wanted people to explain what their concerns were. You look at the ends to which you're visually getting at because a lot of times people think they are expressing these ideas. In ways that, because of personal reasons, need to believe it’s working. Other people are seeing something different in that.
When you're young you follow many paths. I was documenting a slum area near Indiana University named Pigeon Hill. I was showing my contacts list to Henry Smith and he kept looking at me. He said I want you to go back and photograph every house on one of these streets. I was thinking, this is a waste of time, I don’t want to do this. He was the kind of guy that would blow up. I argued but eventually I got my camera and walked down the street in front of every house and took a picture. We sat down and looked at them. What he suddenly is pointing out to me while I was dealing with what I considered a poverty-stricken area, I had bypassed any house that had a well-kept lawn. I thought I was objectively doing something. That was insightful to me, the idea that nothing is really objective. You have personal ways that you relate to the world and now the stuff that I talk openly about is that all knowledge is self-reflective. It travels through who you are at any given age in your life. When you’re five years old, what is your perception of the world? When you're thirty-five? When you’ve been in and out of love, things affect the way you perceive the world and yourself.
How do you spend your day now?
My favorite kind of days include me getting up, having some strong kind of coffee and I look at contact sheets from many, many years ago. I still shoot film and I try to find things that are a point of departure. One of the myths is that suddenly you get a brilliant idea. That doesn’t happen! Occasionally there will be things that you think are going to work. This is why you have to actively work at what you're doing. I keep working and sometimes my images all have the negative for several weeks and I try several variations.
Some days I get so frustrated and I say, “Jerry look, there is more than one right answer.” That’s one of the nice things about art. But the one thing I do know or believe in about art is that art cannot afford compromise. Why would you compromise on this thing that is representing you? I would repeat any part of the process 100 times if I thought I could significantly improve any particular image. I still don’t turn off my brain so when I'm photographing I'm still thinking so I can collect things, not knowing where they are going to fit in the end result image.
What is the name of your new book?
What would three words be to describe you?
Naturally curly hair! I don’t know. That’s hard. There is an essay by our curator here. She does bring up the fact that I've always had a sense of humor and I try to keep abreast in what's going on in the world but I don’t know three words that describe me. I think it's important to have a playful sensibility in terms of creating art but play is not the opposite of serious. Playful is just an attitude that allows you to try things, to trust your pre-conscious brain.
What do you want your work to provoke in people who look at it?
For people who are willing, these images are directed to their inventive consciousness. They complete the cycle. It's not just a matter of making out what's there, the objective consciousness but when they look at these they find some way of resolving it on personal terms.