Photographer, former University of Florida professor Jerry Uelsmann has died

ByDavid M. Conte

Apr 7, 2022

Pioneering surrealist photographer Jerry Uelsmann has died.

Word that the 87-year-old iconic photographer had passed away began spreading through the creative arts community in Gainesville late Monday afternoon.

“The work is iconic, and so is Jerry,” Elizabeth Ross, director of the University of Florida’s School of Art and Art History, said in a statement. “He transformed photography.”

Uelsmann’s technique of layering negatives and varying exposures created visual masterpieces of photomontage. One of Uelsmann’s works features a pair of hands cradling a bird’s nest and growing from a tree stump. His ability to blend scenes, such as making clouds and rippling water become one, was honed in the darkroom over years of work.

Uelsmann worked in the darkroom until the very end. He didn’t like using digital software like Photoshop.

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Uelsmann became popular in the 1960s after coming to teach photography at the University of Florida.

“He taught for 38 years helping to establish the creative photography curriculum,” Ross said.

As a teacher and a person, Uelsmann has touched the lives of many of his students, who say his openness, his sincere love for sharing his philosophy of life through photography, and his spirit of giving are some of the qualities one will remember.

John Moran, environmental photojournalist and former photographer for the Gainesville Sun, was a student of Uelsmann in the mid-1970s.

“He was among the best teachers I’ve ever had,” he said. “He taught his students to trust and nurture their spirits.”

Moran was a new photojournalist wishing to take a course in photographic art. Uelsmann’s mentorship was exactly what Moran needed.

“He was so approachable, I loved him for it.”

Likewise, local commercial photographer Randy Batista was an alumnus of Uelsmann in 1974.

“He was always creating images, his creativity was all over his body,” Batista said. “His spirit of joy just filled the room.”

Batista recalls being a medical student and unhappy with his life path when he decided to take up photography after a friend let him borrow a camera. He said he had to convince Uelsmann to allow him to take a course. The two eventually grew closer.

“He got me through the first class and the rest is history,” Batista said. “It changed my whole life.”

To create a single image, Uelsmann sometimes took up to seven negatives of different images. Each negative was masked, so only part of the image was projected through the negative.

His darkroom would have seven enlargers installed with each negative. He would get a single piece of photo paper and work through his exposure process. Dodging and burning each layer with precise timing, he had calculated through hundreds of proofs.

Then came the magic moment.

The photo paper takes a bath in developing chemicals and the pieces become whole. The final composite image was still flawless.

Gainesville Mayor Poe still remembers being amazed the first time he saw Uelsmann’s work when he was a high school student.

His younger brother brought home a book from the library that looked like an MC Escher book, but with photographs, he said. The two spent hours looking at the book.

“His work challenges our conscience and the way we think about our world, and that’s what art is all about,” Poe said. “He left a legacy here and impacted generations of artists, not just photographers.”

About two years ago, Uelsmann suffered a severe stroke that caused him to lose sight in one eye, preventing him from doing much darkroom work. Complications from a more recent stroke are what would have led to his death, friends have said.

“It’s a huge loss,” Moran said.