Scott Erickson’s Jerry & Maggie: This Is Not Photography is a sleek and insightful look into the world of surrealist photographer Jerry Uelsmann.
Directed by Scott Erickson and produced by the fine folks at Lynda.com, Jerry & Maggie looks at Uelsmann’s fantastic and revolutionary photo-splicing techniques as the precursor to Adobe Photoshop, a tool which Uelsmann’s wife — and fellow artist — Maggie Taylor uses to create all her work.
Below, we chat with Erickson about the story behind his locally grown doc.
How did you first meet Jerry and Maggie?
I first met Jerry through his work. As a photography student in high school, I was exposed to his photographs in a textbook and was completely blown away by them and the world they created.
However, in the more literal sense, I first met Jerry when we showed up at his house in Gainesville, Florida, to discuss doing a documentary on him. Jerry was pitched as a guest for our documentary series at Lynda.com called Creative Inspirations, and it turns out that our cofounder, Bruce Heavin, was heavily influenced by Jerry’s work, as well, and he was very enthused about us doing a film on Jerry.
Through our research, we discovered the work of Jerry’s wife, Maggie, as well, but it wasn’t until going down and seeing their home, workspace, and creative process that we knew we had to make a film about them together.
What prompted you to make the film?
This is film is part of an ongoing documentary series at Lynda.com called Creative Inspirations and is in fact our fifth film that has been accepted into SBIFF from that series.
The goal of all our documentaries at Lynda.com is simple: to inspire. We recognized right away that Jerry and Maggie are simple, incredible people who make amazing art and that we had a unique opportunity on our hands. Jerry is a master of a dying art form, silver gelatin photography, and Maggie is a master of a growing art form, digital compositing. They are both inspiring artists in their own right but are also simply just amazing people, as well. They have dedicated themselves to their art and have an inspiring story to tell. We just had to not mess it up!
In terms of storytelling, what were some of the biggest challenges the film presented?
Story was incredibly important to us here and something that we really pushed ourselves. We’ve never made a film about two people before, and while Jerry’s work carries a fair amount of name recognition and attention, we knew we wanted to give Maggie’s story equal weight. We could have easily made a film focused solely on Jerry that was incredible comprehensive and detailed, but we decided to tell the better story and include Maggie. They each have their own unique path to their chosen method of artistic expression, but their individual creative processes are incredibly symbiotic, and we weave those stories together in the film and ultimately paint a picture of the incredibly supportive and loving relationship that they have.
What were some of the most compelling parts of filming for you?
There are two scenes that I absolutely love, even though I’ve seen them dozens of times. One thing that is always important to us is to try and capture that actual creative process of our subjects. As opposed to just telling you about their process, we prefer to show it. During our scouting trip, we realized that the cameras we had were not up to the task of shooting Jerry in the low-light environment of his darkroom. We are able to utilize Canon’s newest digital cinema-style cameras that are capable of shooting in incredibly low-light situations and document Jerry working through the creation of a unique piece of art, something that had never been captured before. It’s thrilling to see an artist struggle and develop an idea and see the result at the end. It’s also something that Jerry was very excited about having in the film, so that’s always a nice feeling, as well.
My other favorite part comes toward the end of the third act where we finally focus on Jerry and Maggie’s relationship. Other than the introduction, we don’t see them onscreen together until after we’ve learned their individual backstories and seen their creative process, and then finally, now that you care about them, you get a glimpse into the incredibly loving and supportive relationship that they have, and it’s just heart-melting. We captured this fantastic scene between them that really encapsulates their relationship, and it’s one of those beautiful moments that we could never have planned but really makes the film.
Also, we got shots of an alligator when Jerry and Maggie took us kayaking, which was pretty sweet. It’s our little National Geographic moment!
As a director, how does still photography fit into the way you think about making movies?
My background is actually in still photography, so it’s definitely what influenced me to think about composition and telling visual stories. However, it’s only recently that I’ve pushed myself to focus more on portraiture and capturing the spirit of a person in my still photography. I’m very technical and can talk about lenses and color depth and all the nerdy stuff for days, but I’ve realized that the best portrait photographers have that skill set but also know how to connect and partner with their subjects.
As a documentary filmmaker, I cannot hope to make a compelling film about someone without connecting deeply on a personal level with that subject anymore than a portrait photography could hope to capture an amazing photo of a guest without any connection. So I love to use the “technical” aspects of photography in my filmmaking, in terms of lighting, lenses, etc., but I’ve found recently that carrying the lessons learned on the personal relationships side of photography into my films has made all the difference.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
Well, I hope they are inspired to go out and be creative, of course. In my mind, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing other creative people being creative. I think what’s also nice is that Jerry and Maggie both had incredibly different paths in life.
Jerry found his artistic calling fairly early in his career and had a show at the MOMA while in his twenties. It took Maggie a long time and a lot of steps to find her calling, but looking back, you see how crucial they are to making it all work for her. Without those early failures and setbacks, she would not have landed where she did. So I love that there are two life paths presented in the film and that both are perfectly all right.
What’s next for you?
Well, more documentaries, that’s for sure. Jerry & Maggie was my 30th film for Lynda.com, and we’ve got plenty more planned. We are shifting our focus toward more short-form documentaries for the future so we can cover more types of guests and provide a regular source of documentary content for our members. The nice thing about short-form is it allows us more room for creativity and exploration in our filmmaking, which is great. So yeah, more inspirational storytelling — you can’t beat that!
Jerry & Maggie screens on Friday, January 25, 10 a.m., at the S.B. Museum of Art and on Friday, February 1, 1 p.m., at the Metro 4.