I present the challenge of gathering imagery (royalty-free images and their own photographs) and manipulating them to produce an imagined landscape. Students’ landscapes may include figures, buildings, or natural forms. The challenge is in making the combinations tell a story. We read snippets of an interview with Jerry Uelsmann and students come up with stories about their chosen images. Almost all are untitled, which opens them up to individual interpretation.
Christopher C.Left and right: Matt J.Left: Aidan R; Right: Matt J.
When someone asks me what photographer inspires me or has had the most impact on my own photography, I always say Jerry Uelsmann. Before Photoshop was even invented, Uelsmann was a true inventor in the darkroom. To achieve his technique of collaging several elements using multiple enlargers (projection printers), he created a visual library from which he intuitively selected, molded, and revealed fantastical and symbolic landscapes. Uelsmannʼs dreamlike and archetypal imagery speaks to my own enthusiasm for depicting dreams and their connection to the subconscious.
Introducing the Photographer
I always introduce Uelsmann to my digital photography students using various images from The Mind’s Eye exhibition (see Resources), and asked students to guess how Uelsmann achieved his iconic photographic effects. Students who haven’t taken darkroom photography are shocked when they see videos of his techniques. I use photographic terminology that students are familiar with from using Photoshop, Photopea, or Instagram such as dodging/burning, overlay, masking, and vignetting. These take on new meaning as students watch the video, “Jerry Uelsmann: Visual Poetry” (see Resources), and I explain the origins of these techniques.
I present the challenge of gathering imagery (royalty-free images and their own photographs) and manipulating them to produce an imagined landscape. Studentsʼ landscapes may include figures, buildings, or natural forms. The challenge is in making the combinations tell a story.
We read snippets of an interview with Uelsmann (see Resources) and students come up with stories about their chosen images. Almost all are untitled, which opens them up to individual interpretation.
Gathering Photographic Imagery
When students set out to gather their own imagery, they shoot in black-and-white and discuss the use of positive and negative space. We also discuss the specific role that highlights and shadows will have in the “multiple exposure” layering technique. I encourage students to photograph a wide variety of subjects—isolated objects, figures, silhouettes, buildings or constructions, organic versus geometric objects, natural elements, and simple landscapes.
Once students have photographed enough images to start the assignment, we review basic tools in Photoshop. Our focus is on the use of selection tools, transparency, and the masking and blending modes. Students practice selecting objects and merging them with a background image.
During the creation process, review Uelsman’s imagery and point out the interesting compositions or collaging techniques he uses, such as:
juxtaposing positives and negatives
merging/overlaying lighter objects inside of shadows
silhouetting figures against light backgrounds
substituting the elements (e.g., sky for land, water for land)
splitting images and creating a mirror effect for perfect symmetry
The resulting images are mysterious and sometimes haunting. Students connect their work to the genre of film noir and we may even talk about dream analysis/symbolism and Carl Jung’s theories on the subconscious. It always invigorates me to introduce students to Uelsmannʼs work and innovative techniques.
Art teachers encourage students to tell stories through their art. Young students listen to a read-aloud and create clay creatures inspired by the book, elementary students illustrate influential figures in art history, middle-school students juxtapose natural and human-made elements through narrative compositions, high-school students manipulate images to create imagined landscapes, and more.