Before Photoshop

A retrospective exhibit of Jerry Uelsmann’s “non-literal” photography opened last weekend at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem and continues through May 13.  The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann  includes over 90 works by the photographer, dating from the 1950s to the present.  I was too busy and sick (with the dreadful, everlasting cold that everyone seems to have this winter) to make it for the opening festivities last weekend, featuring a presentation by Mr. Uelsmann as well as a screening of the documentary on his work by Daniel Reeves entitled Outside In:  The Transformative Vision of Jerry Uelsmann, but yesterday I spent an hour or so wandering around the gallery and plan to go back soon.  The museum itself was quite crowded, given that it was a Saturday and there were lots of family activities in the Atrium relating to the other major exhibition that recently opened, Shapeshifting:  Transformations in Native American Art, so I didn’t stay long.  One of the major benefits of living (and working)  in Salem is being able to pop into the world-class museum that the Peabody Essex has become between classes or appointments on a quiet Tuesday afternoon.

Uelsmann’s  photographs were all amazing, but I particularly liked those with architectural details, very predictable given my predilection for the built environment.  Apparently I’m in good company, because the works below are among his most popular.  The last one reminds me of the “feral houses” of Detroit, first showcased on the great blog Sweet Juniper.  I also liked the animal-themed photographs, including one of Uelsmann’s first wife Marilyn with some out-of-scale sheep in their bedroom and another in which a black dog surveys a block of houses (architecture and animals, perfect).

Untitled, 1964.

Untitled, 1976 (Sometimes referred to as "The Philosopher's Desk" but not by Mr. Uelsmann).

Untitled, 1982.

Uelsmann’s photographs made me curious about the history of photomontage, defined by David Evans in the Grove Dictionary of Art as a “technique by which a composite photographic image is formed by combining images from separate photographic sources”.  I knew that the Surrealists played around with photography at the turn of the last century, but I had no idea that the very first generation of photographers did so as well.  So even though Uelsmann is obviously a master of photomontage, he is not a pioneer; an entire century earlier photographers like Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson, both working in Britain from the early 1850s, were experimenting with what was then called “double printing” or “combination printing”.  It’s only natural that people would want to manipulate the new medium almost as soon as it appeared, although “artistic photography” bothered those who wanted photography only to document reality.  A very focused website, nureal:  a timeline of fantastic photomontage and its possible influences, 1857-2007 features a very substantive history of the technique and the artist-technicians, and the website of the George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film can also provide context and images, including that of Robinson’s famous combination print Fading Away (1858), made from five different negatives.  Robinson had trained as a painter and seems to have been more motivated by artistic principle in his photographic compositions than a desire to capture reality, as illustrated by his 1880 print Two Figures in a Landscape in which the models were photographed in his studio and then “placed” outdoors in the final image.

Two photographs by Henry Peach Robinson:  Fading Away (1858, George Eastman House) and Two Figures in a Landscape (1880).

Robinson wrote about his cut-and-paste technique, so not long after this second photograph anyone could have themselves pictured before Niagara Falls, without ever traveling there.  Things get a little bit more fantastic in the last decades of the nineteenth century, with “spirit photography” and photographic collages and all sorts of surrealistic images appearing on both postcards and larger prints.  Another good online source to explore the history of photography in general and photomontage in particular is the American Museum of Photography, which maintains several digital exhibitions, including a charming one on the work of trick photographer and publisher William H. “Dad” Martin, whose images of “homespun surrealism”/ fantastic farming were incredibly popular just before World War One.

4 responses to “Before Photoshop

  • settleandchase

    Fascinating post, you tend to think of this kind of photographic manipulation being a new thing, but of course not..and the Uelsmann photographs, so interesting, dark and strange..thanks for sharing! (this is Cath from Blanket and Bone in another guise btw…!)

  • dawnestrehl

    My husband just got me photoshop yesterday and I’m as lost as an Easter egg! Thanks for the inspiration!

    Regards, D

  • markd60

    Wow! Fantastic! I had forgotten about before photoshop. On movies, they had to go through each tiny frame and change each one.
    Your posts always amaze me!

  • rsmithing

    Uelsmann is my all-time favorite photographer/artist and has long been a source of inspiration. Thank you for highlighting his work in this post. I may have to make a trip up to Salem!

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