From Inspiration to Image
“The egg, that perennial symbol of maternal and artistic creativity, has a hold on Taylor, as it did on Joseph Cornell 50 years ago. Masks, blindfolds, clouds, and faces blurred out of recognition may be references to a sensation of alienation or a desire to be invisible.”
Inspiration Past and Present: Heading Towards Image
WHEN IT IS TIME TO WORK, Taylor walks into her office, a small carpeted room facing the back of the house, and closes the blinds. The office, which doubles as a guest room, looks like the office of any work-at-home person, except for the large Epson flatbed scanner near the desk and the mishmash of seemingly unrelated knickknacks—military medals and tintype photographs, feathers and antique lithographs—clustered around the keyboard. Taylor turns on her desk lamp, sits down in her Aeron chair, and puts her hand on the rollerball mouse. The only sound in the room is the hum of her Macintosh G5 tower.
Taylor’s computer is the primary instrument of her craft, and she regards it with the same affection and seriousness with which a painter might consider her easel or a ceramist his kiln. At the same time, Taylor knows that her chosen machine—unlike the kiln or the easel—has sometimes brought a stigma to her work and that of other digital artists. “Most people relate to the computer in their everyday life as a desk tool,” Taylor says. “You’re in college writing papers, or you’re at home paying bills using the computer, or doing email on the computer. I think people have trouble seeing how you could sit at it and use it in a totally creative way. It just so happens that I love sitting at a desk. It doesn’t bother me that I might switch from typing a letter to someone to working on an image.” Taylor uses her computer to shop for old photographs on eBay, to communicate with other artists and with her galleries, and finally, to make her images. “I love that all my work happens in one place.”
Those who know Taylor are apt to point out that the way she works is a perfect fit for someone of her sensibilities. The work is sedentary, first of all, but it’s also highly methodical, organized, and detail oriented. Sitting in front of her computer, Taylor is absorbed in the glow of its display, much as she was by her childhood television set. The scale of this work suits her, too. As a collector, Taylor is drawn to small things—dollhouse furniture, feathers, animal bones, old photographs—all of which fit neatly on a scanner. In Taylor’s hands, even the limitations of Photoshop serve her purpose: the point at which a Photoshop-generated image looks too contrived or artificial, for instance, is the point at which Taylor may decide to make her own drawing. It’s that resulting combination of the digitally constructed and the hand-hewn that gives her work its particular warmth and intimacy.
One work habit Taylor and her husband, Jerry Uelsmann, share is the need for solitude and, more importantly, time for an image to take shape. Traditionally, the creative moment in photography is the click of the shutter, the precise moment the photographer chooses to capture. In Uelsmann’s work, that moment is postponed and prolonged, in the day-long darkroom process of combining and printing negatives. Similarly, Taylor often starts with a photograph or an image caught by a sweep of a flatbed scanner, but her craft is at the computer, frequently stretched over a period of months.
As a result, Taylor’s creative process often looks like an endless series of mental switchbacks. “I think I like it better with just that one shark fin,” she muses, her head cocked to the side, “but maybe there need to be three.”
“You should call this book Indecision!” jokes Uelsmann, watching over Taylor’s shoulder as she adds and then removes, and then adds and then removes, the element from her image.
What allows Taylor to suspend this period of creative indecision is a Photoshop technique known as “layering.” Each element and effect Taylor adds to her image is saved as a separate layer, which lets her isolate that aspect and turn it on or off, experimentally. While Uelsmann’s darkroom decisions are irreversible, Taylor’s digital alchemy allows her to postpone decision making indefinitely. Until Taylor “collapses” her layers—a step that is ultimately necessary to shrink the file to a manageable size—every decision is elastic. The only point of no return for Taylor is when a print has been sent off to a gallery.
Some of Taylor’s images take just a few days to complete; others span months. Occasionally, an image will reach a certain point and then stay there, suspended by Taylor’s indecision or dissatisfaction with it. One image, tentatively titled Girl with a bee dress, sat in the folder for six months. “There was something I just didn’t like about it,” says Taylor. “I don’t know, it was too pink. I loved the idea of it, but it just wasn’t working. So I set it aside.” At the end of each year, Taylor revisits the folder to see which images she might see in a new light and complete, lest she begin the new year with last year’s unfinished work.
Taylor produces about 12 to 16 finished images a year, in three sizes—8-inch, 15-inch, and 22-inch square. (The largest size, Taylor explains, is both the most difficult to print and the least popular with buyers. As a result, she’s considering phasing it out of production.) In her first few years of working in Photoshop, Taylor sent her images to IRIS printers in Santa Fe and Clearwater, Florida. IRIS machines spray ink from tiny inkjet hoses onto paper wrapped around a 48-inch drum. It was the industry standard at the time, but achieving the precise colors Taylor wanted was laborious; images would often have to be sent back and forth between Taylor and the IRIS technicians three or four times before the colors met her expectations. Then she worked for several years very happily with an IRIS printer in Rochester, New York.
Nowadays, Taylor prints at home on her Epson 9600, a table-sized inkjet (or “Giclee” as the galleries call it) printer that can produce images up to 44 inches wide. Looking at an inkjet print, Taylor is attuned to color saturation and black density, and to whether or not the ink will cling to the paper without flaking off and leaving tiny white specks across an image—a problem that has forced her to recall prints from galleries in the past. These days, after experimenting with many brands of ink and paper, Taylor has found a combination of Epson inks and coated papers that gives her such reliable and color-saturated prints that—for the present— she no longer seeks improvements.
Longevity is another issue, and one that has nagged digital artists and color photographers since the beginning. Black-and-white gelatin silver prints (the standard among artists like Walker Evans and Ansel Adams) are permanent, unlike color photographs, which—depending on the materials used—can fade and color-shift, as most 70’s family snapshots will attest. Inkjet prints are a recent enough technology that no one really knows how long they will last, though some inks have already proved to be short-lived. One batch of Taylor’s images, printed on an IRIS machine in San Francisco, began to fade after only a few years. “I didn’t sell any of those, thank goodness,” says Taylor. In the mid-90’s, Henry Wilhelm, adviser to the Museum of Modern Art, took Kodak and Epson to task for misrepresenting the longevity of their inks, launching—with the help of a Guggenheim grant—a new field of research into image preservation. (Wilhem also convinced Corbis, owner of the vast Bettman photo archive, to build a sub-zero, underground film-preservation laboratory in western Pennsylvania.) Since then, life expectancy of printer inks has improved dramatically.
Still, Taylor and other digital artists have questioned whether all the talk about the longevity of digital prints amounts to much more than a red herring. “If you look back at people who have been selling watercolors for several hundred years,” says Taylor, “no one says anything about the fact that they aren’t archival. I find it annoying that people only brought up these longevity issues with regard to color photography in the 70’s and 80’s.” In a 1998 interview, Therese Mulligan, then the director of the George Eastman House, voiced a similar frustration. Asked whether the longevity of digital prints might limit their value on the art market, Mulligan replied that the question seemed to her, “to obscure, in part, the real discussion that needs to take place in regard to the digital medium... For me, digital technologies are like any other medium in the hands of an artist. They are another way to get at a picture. And it is the picture that should be utmost in our minds.”
Taylor puts effort into researching papers and inks and uses the best archival papers she can find. But still, she says, it’s the now of the image that matters most. “I’d rather have it look fabulous for whatever time it can—20 years or whatever—than have it last 100 years and be a muted version of what I hoped to achieve, with no blacks and no saturation in the colors.”
If any of Taylor’s images can be traced back to a single inspiration, often that source is something pulled from Taylor’s and Uelsmann’s collections. Along with the thousands of curios lining Taylor’s studio drawers and Uelsmann’s office shelves, the two keep a collection of outsider art by artists like Jesse Aaron, a self-taught Gainesville sculptor whose wooden animal totems were inspired, according to Aaron, by a directive from God, and Earl Cunningham, a self-taught painter from Florida whom Uelsmann sought out and photographed in the 1970s. A bookshelf near their front door is filled with a collection of small metal and wooden sculptures representing Exu, the god who, according to the Afro-Brazilian Candomble religion, opens pathways and delivers messages. “Our friend Mario Cravo Neto told us Exu would chase away evil spirits if placed behind the front door,” Taylor says.
What objects Taylor and Uelsmann don’t actually collect, they’re likely to collect books about. Flipping through a volume of milagre ex votos—small wooden dolls used in Brazil as prayers for healing various ailments—one day, Taylor was captivated by the carving of a scar line across the belly of one of the crude, but oddly expressive, wooden figures. “I need to remember that,” she said. “I definitely want to use some kind of scar in one of my images.” Taylor’s work is full of this kind of recycling. Those die-cast blue Tootsie Toy chairs, for instance—one of Taylor’s favorite collections—appear in The blue train, which was commissioned by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (and in one of Uelsmann’s images, as well).
Many of the objects come from Taylor’s own family, including a trove of memorabilia Taylor inherited after her grandmother died, like the thread collection Taylor uses as a color palette, a collection of perfectly preserved 1950s hats, and a childhood schoolbook illustrated with her grandmother’s enigmatic World War I-inspired doodles, one of which appears in Butterfly hunter.
Taylor and Uelsmann both travel with cameras, which they use to take photographs that might be useful in future work. “Jerry is my role model for this,” says Taylor. “When he’s out traveling, he’s collecting images for his visual library. Some of the things I know I can definitely use are water and cloud images. Textures too. Grass. Sometimes if there’s an interesting wall with a nice texture on it. Those are all things I can use.” Uelsmann also learned from a role model: Minor White, the Zen-inspired photographer of the natural world, who taught Uelsmann that, “One should photograph things not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” That eye for the metaphorical resonance of an image or object is perhaps the strongest bond between Taylor’s and Uelsmann’s work.
That eye is what brings Taylor back time and time again to objects so rich in metaphor that her use of them often has more to do with instinct than with specific narrative purpose. The egg, a perennial symbol of both maternal and artistic creativity, has a hold on Taylor, as it did on Joseph Cornell 50 years ago. Nests and other remnants of avian life also appear frequently, as do other animal parts, often as appendages to human ones. Masks, blindfolds, clouds, and faces blurred out of recognition or simply removed from their bodies—all are recurring themes in Taylor’s work as well, references, perhaps, to a sense of alienation or a wish to be invisible. Taylor suggests what she’s after in these images, but she never makes it explicit. Her work, full of happy accidents and second guessing, makes room for her subconscious to assert itself, as a close examination of Taylor’s process reveals.