Photography has been ever changing since it began as a science and became a major medium in the art world and most recently a digital medium that has drastically changed the meaning of contemporary photography. Jerry Uelsmann, a photographer who does work that captures the aesthetic present in contemporary photography, received his B.F.A. at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1957 and his M.S. and M.F.A. at Indiana University in 1960 (uelsmann.net). The way he alters his photographs demonstrates the changes that photography has taken to progress into what is now considered contemporary art. By doing this, his work runs parallel to the evolution into modern photography. Digital photography and artist’s visions, such as Jerry Uelsmann’s, are responsible for changing the meaning of a photograph and giving new definition to contemporary photography.
Photography has been developing since 1826 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce used heliography, a technique he developed that used the sun to burn images into a chemical-coated pewter plate, to create the first permanent image (National Geographic). For the first 100 years photography was only used by scientists, historians, and for documentation (artdaily.org). It was not until the 19th century that photography began being used as a form of fine art. A new age of photography emerged when Sony released the first solid-state still camera on August 25, 1981 (digital-photography-tips.net).
The photograph was once considered simply a proof of a moment in time; however, this is no longer true. Jerry Uelsmann’s work contradicts the idea that a photograph can only capture reality because he creates his own world through merging photographs. His photographs reflect what the world of photography is coming to. No longer is the photograph documentary proof of an event, rather, it is now transforming reality into something else. Due to the nature of the technique he uses, Uelsmann must envision his piece before he shoots it because this part of the process must be done before entering the dark room. The perks of Digital Photography allow the artist to shoot the image and apply the technique after the shooting process and because of this, these techniques have become more popular. Techniques such as double exposure and merging images were not as common as they are now because, without the use of computers, they were more difficult and less practical than they are now. Even from the point of view of a trained eye, his work appears seamlessly merged together despite the lack of computer usage. His application of these techniques has paved the way for what contemporary photography followed. Uelsmann’s work demonstrates the possibilities of manipulating photography and what can be done to make the viewer see it differently. The alterations in his work are very clear to see, however, this foreshadows the discrete photo-editing that is to come.
Digital photography has allowed editing to be utilized at a very basic level, which is commonly referred to as “photoshopping” an image. In a short amount of time an artist could replicate the aesthetic of Jerry Uelsmann. Adobe Photoshop has made altering an image very easy and it is now a staple in the commercial world. Many images in ordinary magazines or stills on television are digitally enhanced in one way or another. These developments have enhanced the quality of photography, but they also force one to question its validity giving a different meaning to the photograph. Uelsmann’s work demonstrates how the definition of photography has changed throughout its lifetime because of these technological advancements.
From the beginning, photography has always been a developing technology; since the scientist that concocted the chemical formula to burn the image into a plate to digital photography and photo-editing software. Jerry Uelsmann’s work brilliantly captures this quality of photography and the essence of what is contemporary in photography. Contemporary photography has been perpetually changing, slowly at first, though new technology has now accelerated this development. A contemporary photograph is an image that uses reality as a secondary subject of the photograph. For example, Jerry Uelsmann’s photograph of a house that has roots growing out of the bottom is a photograph that resembles reality, but has an illustrative quality that separates it. The photograph is of two images merged together to create something completely different than the original negatives. He uses his photography in a different way than it is traditionally used, and by doing this, he produces a new photograph entirely.
Contemporary photography is made by transforming the subject and digital photography is responsible for making this more practical. Uelsmann’s work is contemporary, yet he does not only use digital photography to get the effect that is in his work. Contemporary photography can utilize techniques that were previously unavailable or not commonly used, but this alone is not what defines a contemporary photograph.
Uelsmann’s work is contemporary photography not only because he demonstrates expertise in the photographic process, but because he is able to transform his subject into something completely new. In one of his pieces he uses an image of rocks along a path, but he places an image of a door on a large rock that is the focal point in the image. He uses familiar shapes and transforms them to tell a story and create a new photograph. Contemporary photography has become the opposite of everything that defined a traditional photograph. Originally a photograph would be defined as a moment to be viewed in the future, however, artists such as Uelsmann take these moments in time and convert them into something new. The original moment captured is no longer as important in contemporary photography; it is what the artist transforms it into that defines the work.
In his later work, digital photography allowed Uelsmann to push his ideas even further. Due to the practicality of these new technologies, his work transformed even more from the original photograph. One of his later works is of a road that foreshortens into the distance, but a large image of lips is floating in the front. The photograph is no longer a road, it is something of the artist’s imagination, and it tells a completely different story than the original image. He depicts his vision through transforming his photographs into something completely new. Since artists are now focusing on subjects that do not naturally occur, photography as a medium has changed to take into consideration that the truth no longer goes hand in hand with photography.
The world of altered photography removes the validity of a photograph. They are still used for documentation; however, the lack of validity has made it less accurately a reflection of a moment in time than ever before. Documentary photography can no longer be proof that an event existed, and these changes bring about a new genre of photography. Digital media is responsible for accelerating the development of photography, but it is because of photographers like Jerry Uelsmann that this transition has become a reality. The world of contemporary photography is being shaped by the artist’s vision and their understanding of how photography can be altered. In the lifetime of art, photography is young, the developments are only beginning, and the possibilities are endless.
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