Double photo show at von Liebig Center

'Sketchy Characters' photo art by Maggie Taylor

"Sketchy Characters" photo art by Maggie Taylor

If you go

Photography by Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor from the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida

Where: Naples Art Association, The von Liebig Art Center, 585 Park St., Naples

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday through May 5

Admission: Free

Information: 239-262-6517 or www.naplesart.org

Something more: Watch Uelsmann and Taylor working in their studios and listen to them discuss their art in the online video, "Digital Darkroom," presented by the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles: http://www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org

He's a diehard darkroom wizard; she's enchanted by the magic of Photoshop. He takes pictures using a camera and film; she makes them on screen.

More than a generation apart in age, Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor perfectly illustrate the shift from analogue (i.e., film-based) to digital photography that has swept the camera world over the past 15 years.

And, as married artists working in close proximity, they appear to have mastered a juggling act that enriches the work of both. They have separate studios, located across the road from one another in Gainesville, but they share ideas, images and the occasional technical assist like well-practiced ring tossers at the circus.

It helps a lot that their taste is in synch. Both lean toward magic realism, rooted in the surreal visions of artists such as Rene Magritte and Man Ray.

The couple met in the mid-1980s when Taylor, now 51, was a student in the M.F.A. program at the University of Florida, where Uelsmann taught for 38 years. They married in 1989, and have frequently exhibited together in the past decade. A show of their artworks, drawn from the Harn Museum of Art collection, is currently on view at the von Liebig Art Center, continuing through May 5.

True fictions

Uelsmann, 77, is an iconic figure in modern photography. His surrealistic photomontages have been well known in the art world since the 1960s. Dreamlike black-and-white images – such as a crumbling Southern mansion that sprouts from the roots of a tree or a mountain stream that morphs into a woman's body – are composites made from multiple negatives combined in the darkroom. As the Adobe Systems marketers like to say, "It's Photoshop before there was Photoshop."

'Untitled' photo art by Jerry Uelsmann

"Untitled" photo art by Jerry Uelsmann

Uelsmann creates "true fictions," images that exploit the plausibility of photography while they defy the eyes to explain what is happening in them. For instance, his "Dream Theater," 2004, features a tiny human figure walking into an elaborate architectural setting. The top of the Baroque arcade dissolves into a billowing cloud. In the middle ground, a black bird stands in profile, a slightly ominous sentinel. In the foreground, a pair of ghostly hands hovers over a book as if trying to divine the elusive meaning of the scene.

"Life is a kind of dream theater, if you think about it," Uelsmann said during a recent phone interview.

In 1967, he coined the term "postvisualization" to describe his working method, which was in contrast with the "previsualization" in the camera viewfinder that most photographers employed to frame an image. His approach, he noted in a lecture given jointly with Taylor at the von Liebig on March 9, is similar to the "in-process discovery that occurs in all other areas of art."

Today, Uelsmann joked during the lecture, younger audience members often come to see Taylor rather than him when they appear together. "But I like people to know I'm still alive and working in the darkroom," he added wryly.

'The Committee' photo art by Jerry Uelsmann

Photo by Jerry Uelsmann

"The Committee" photo art by Jerry Uelsmann

Drawing upon his lifetime accumulation of negatives, an image bank of nudes, rocks, shorelines, trees, houses and pools of water, Uelsmann continues to assemble poetic montages, using seven enlargers and an array of darkroom techniques, such as dodging, burning and multiple exposures.

"My only hidden agenda is to amaze myself," he said. "In art, there's always more than one right answer."

Poetic fables

While Uelsmann – and many camera artists who followed in his footsteps – has taken advantage of the inherent "truthiness" of black-and-white photography in order to subvert reality, Taylor seems never to have been much concerned about the believability factor. Her sensibility is Southern Gothic meets Brothers Grimm.

A contemporary fabulist, she came of age artistically at a time when manipulated and staged photography were the coin of the realm. During the 1980s, artists such as Cindy Sherman, who is now enjoying a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, used the camera to conjure up shifting identities and alternative realities. Documentary or "straight" photography was perceived as a little old-fashioned, kind of like bellbottom jeans.

'The Pretender' photo art by Maggie Taylor

"The Pretender" photo art by Maggie Taylor

Taylor became intrigued by the possibilities of computer-generated imagery in the mid-1990s, when Adobe asked Uelsmann to make a poster for them. "They set us up with a really nice computer," she recalled. "At the time, I was interested in the computer, but there really weren't good options for making prints. When the newer generation of inkjet printers came out around 2000, I started going digital."

She has since immersed herself in digital technology, using a scanner and image-processing software to construct colorful, luminous compositions, building them up layer by layer. Taylor considers herself to be an image fabricator rather than a photographer. Found images and objects delight her, and she likes to scan things, including her own goldfish (it lived, she says), which she incorporates into her artwork. She collects old photographs, dolls, children's toys, and dead creatures, such as the bees that appear in "Girl with a Bee Dress," an inkjet print made in 2004.

'Girl with a Bee Dress' photo art by Maggie Taylor

Photo by Maggie Taylor

"Girl with a Bee Dress" photo art by Maggie Taylor

Whimsical and a bit disturbing, this image plays off the dissonance between the serene, imperturbable face of the young girl and the swarm of bees that covers her body.

"I never like to say too much about what the pictures mean, because I want it to be open to the viewer's interpretation," Taylor said by phone. "The girl's head and shoulders come from a small photograph. I had to add the whole body – it's me in the background [behind the bee dress]. At the time, we had carpenter bees eating our studio and I picked up some of the dead ones, so I scanned them. I put five or six or seven of them on the scanner in different positions and they scanned really well."

Of the girl, Taylor added, "She doesn't look at all scared or worried and she's holding a flower to attract the bees, so I like the look of confidence she has."

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