On October 2nd, we were very fortunate to attend a lecture by renowned surreal photographer Jerry Uelsmann at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, NC.1 Uelsmann delivered an insightful, sincere talk. His lecture was the best I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard more than a few.
If you are familiar with Uelsmann’s work, it will come as no surprise that I love his surreal vision. At a time before digital imaging software, he created such imagery – and still does – using only darkroom techniques.
As he mentioned old favorites like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, I was on the edge of my seat. I will undoubtedly refer back to more of Uelsmann’s many pearls of wisdom in the future, but one of the recurring themes he stressed was the need to be authentic in your work.
I completely agree, and believe that as you create work that is true to you, you can also discover even more about yourself in the process. Dancing back and forth, these two aspects feed each other as an artist goes deeper within. I often say that the more personal your imagery becomes, the more universal it is – the essence of the human condition, if you will.
“The camera basically is a license to explore.”
– Jerry Uelsmann
In the lecture we attended, Uelsmann elaborated by saying it this way: “A camera gives you license to stare at a crack in the sidewalk and folks don’t think you’re crazy.”
It is usually best for creatives to let go of such judgments or labels imposed on them by others, but Uelsmann’s aphorism reminded me of an experience Jimmy and I had in late September.
While we were in a store, we missed quite a hail storm. We emerged just before sunset to a dramatic sky, so when we arrived at our chosen restaurant for dinner, we immediately starting taking photographs. It was a clashing combination of drama meets delicate color and value shifts. J. M. W. Turner would have been proud.
Then through her open window, a woman in a nearby car asked us in a perplexed but innocent tone,
“Why are you taking photos of the sky?”
I was quite puzzled by her inquiry. But why wouldn’t we photograph such a sky? We are usually delighted to see others alongside us in a parking lot, comrades in admiration of nature’s beauty.
“We’re artists,” I replied simply. She nodded, seeming to accept this as a carte blanche reason for us to do anything she considered eccentric.
As an artist, I stockpile such moments as potential future reference photographs for paintings. You never know when you’ll need just the right dramatic sky with backlit clouds to complete your composition.
Yet even if I didn’t have the “art excuse,” there is something about capturing these fleeting moments that I find satisfying. The sky is never the same twice, which is quite a meditative concept to me. Skywatching instills a sense of peace within me as I navigate this busy modern world.
Here are some of my more successful recent attempts – because despite my best efforts, since I didn’t have my professional gear with me, capturing the delicate drama of the post-hailstorm sky on that particular day eluded me, so the results looked a bit lackluster.
I took all of these images spontaneously from various parking lots or on the street with just my mobile phone camera, so here they are complete with power lines and street lights.
So the next time you see a striking cloud or dramatic sunset, go ahead – grab your license to explore and stare at that proverbial crack in the sidewalk.
All the best, and Namaste,
1. Uelsmann, Jerry N. Keynote Artist Talk, Click Triangle Photography Festival and Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, NC, October 2, 2016