Hot Dog for the PMA

By Hallowell, Bay | School Arts, January 1997 | Go to article overview
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Hot Dog for the PMA

Hallowell, Bay, School Arts

What on earth is a giant hot dog, complete with relish and mustard, doing floating in the sky above the Philadelphia Museum of Art? In this photograph, two tall, slender flag poles frame the classically proportioned columns and pediment of the museum, as well as the enormous, soft, squishy hot dog hovering above like a giant blimp. Is this some sort of joke? According to the artist, Jerry Uelsmann (b. 1934), that is precisely what it is.

Uelsmann made this photograph to celebrate the opening of his first major museum exhibition, which was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1970. Do you think he is poking fun at himself, the museum, or both? This museum, like many American museums, schools, and libraries, is modeled on Greek temple architecture - ancient places of worship. Hot dogs are a casual food usually consumed at baseball games, picnics, or airports. Could Uelsmann be saying that his exhibition makes the museum seem less serious and dignified? Or, is he indicating that he feels so terrific about having an exhibition at the museum that he's saying, "Hot Dog!" with a picture instead of words? What else could he be telling us?

Artist Biography

Uelsmann has been a pioneer and spokesperson for the complex techniques and aesthetics of photomontage since the 1960s. (Photomontage is the process of making a composite picture by bringing together photographs or parts of photographs by overlapping or superimposing them so they form a blended whole while remaining distinct.) As an undergraduate at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Uelsmann was introduced to expressive, or creative, photography. His teachers suggested that photography could be more than rigorous technique and pure documentation.

Minor White, a noted photographer and Uelsmann's teacher at RIT, required his students to "photograph things not only for what they are but also for what else they are." Photography was viewed as a moment of revelation and the camera as a machine to transform the visible world rather than just record it.

While doing graduate work at Indiana University, Uelsmann was further propelled on this path by another teacher, Henry Holmes Smith. Smith was an experimenter with cameraless imagery who urged Uelsmann to explore his reasons for making photograph - his inner vision. Realizing that he was capturing "some significant fragments"[1] in his photographs, Uelsmann compiled an image bank of contact sheets and began experimenting with them on a table. Then, after selecting a few images, he began experimenting with the negatives in his darkroom. Eventually, as the evolution of what he called "in-process discovery"[2] developed, Uelsmann perfected his printmaking skills and was able to blend separate images seamlessly into powerful, personal statements.

After exploring this process further during his first years as a teacher at the University of Florida, Uelsmann wrote an essay explaining his position and process. Titled "Post-visualization" (1966), this manifesto encouraged experimentation with every step of the photographic process for the purposes of self-expression. Although Uelsmann met with severe criticism from colleagues who preferred the traditional role of photography, he persevered. During the past three decades, Uelsmann has created a body of work that has won recognition from major museums throughout the world and helped establish photomontage as a legitimate art form.

The Search for Discovery

For Uelsmann, the darkroom is an alchemical chamber where all sorts of magical, mysterious, humorous events can occur. He wrote, "Once in the darkroom, the venturesome mind and spirit should be set free - free to search and hopefully discover."[13] In his photographs, intuition, imagination, and nonlinear thinking are given free rein. Although clear and detailed, his composite images have an ambiguous and dreamlike effect; they elude precise interpretation.

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