The death of legendary photographer Jerry Uelsmann at age 87 in 2022 saddened the photography world as it did fans and enthusiasts in Gainesville.
Now admirers can celebrate his life and work at the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art, which is honoring his work with an exhibition of 37 prints titled, “Jerry Uelsmann: A Celebration of His Life and Art.”
Uelsmann was a professor at the University of Florida for 38 years and worked in a traditional wet darkroom, using up to seven enlargers to print multiple negatives. The resulting fantastical landscapes were lauded as innovative and riveting during the late 1960s and 1970s.
The handmade images now seem even more astonishing, as today’s fine-art photographers rely on highly powerful editing software to create similar work. The exhibit, curated by Dr. Carol McCusker, the Harn curator of photography, includes prints from the Harn’s collection and the photographer’s Gainesville Archive.
“Jerry Uelsmann is part of the University of Florida’s institutional history and memory,” McCusker said in a statement on the Harn’s website. “This exhibition is a comprehensive appreciation of the man through his distinct vision, wry humor and prolific creativity.”
Indeed, the exhibition includes a section illustrating his whimsical frame of mind seen through whirly gigs, toys and visual jokes. He also collected the work of other artists, including paintings and folk art that hung in his Gainesville home.
The Harn opened the exhibit in June, and it will run through Feb. 18.
Fran Towk, 71, a University of Florida graduate, has been following Uelsmann’s work for decades and got the opportunity recently to see Uelsmann’s work.
“It’s just so exciting to see what he does with the visual image. His display, laying things on other things, floating things, it’s always exciting to see,” she said.
Jeanine Tatlock, a visitor services coordinator at the Harn Museum of Art, said that attendance at the museum has seen a noticeable increase in since the exhibit was opened.
“I definitely think people did come just to see the exhibit specifically,” Tatlock said. “I think Jerry Uelsmann had a really strong connection to this community.”
Along with the increased attendance at the museum, the Uelsmann exhibit has had a positive impact on the community, according to Errol Nelson, the assistant of the curator of photography at the museum.
“Beyond being an internationally recognized photographer, I think Jerry Uelsmann has a very deep and lasting impact on the community in Gainesville,” said Nelson, who also serves as the curatorial program coordinator.
“Through his process, through his teaching and through his general involvement in the community, I think he’s made a very lasting impression,” he said.
The exhibit includes plenty of astonishing pieces of photography created by Uelsmann, as well as an overview of the creativity he displayed in life. Next to many of the photos is text that explains the lifestyle he lived, which contributed to the special photography he captured.
Christine Yancy, a museum visitor who stumbled upon the exhibition, said she was astonished by Uelsmann’s work. “I like things that spark my imagination… it’s very thought-provoking,” Yancy said.
This is a common opinion among many fans of Uelsmann, as well as people who became fans after hearing of the exhibit.
George Baxter, another museumgoer, is a fan of photography but had not seen Uelsmann’s work until he visited the Harn Museum of Art. After hearing about the exhibit, he came to view it.
“To me, where a museum is successful, is when people leave and their lives have been impacted, that they just don’t come and go,” Baxter said. “But you can’t look at his photographs without thinking and seeing a depth that normally wouldn’t be there.”
Baxter’s wife of 60 years, Debbie Baxter, was equally as impressed with Uelsmann’s work.
“He’s wonderful,” said Debbie Baxter. “Not only is there a spiritual element to his photography, but he also has humor.”
Uelsmann’s impact on the international scale of photography was solidified decades ago. And now, the Uelsmann exhibit has reminded Gainesville residents of the treasurers left by their late neighbor.
“His career and innovative, creative process will continue to inspire and enrich the lives of generations of university students through the Harn’s permanent collection of his work,” Dr. Lee Anne Chesterfield, art director of the Harn, said in a statement on the museum’s website.