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Friday, July 8, 2011


Last week I received, on behalf of the NMAH Archives Center, a gift of correspondence
files related to the life and career of Donald H. Sultner (1914-1981), a photographer and
lecturer who worked professionally under the name Donald Sultner-Welles. This gift, from Mr.
Steve Eyster, who as a young man was a friend and protégé of Sultner,supplements an existing
Archives Center collection of Sultner’s photographs, documents, and memorabilia.  During his
later life, Sultner had several Smithsonian Institution contacts and occasionally gave
illustrated lectures for the Smithsonian Associates.  It was not surprising, therefore, that
the Smithsonian was a major beneficiary when he died.  The Archives Center was in its
formative stages in the early 1980s, and the Sultner-Welles papers constituted one of the
three major photographic collections upon which the new unit was founded. 

Donald Sultner-Welles had an unusual career.  Initially, his story was an example of

the cliché of the rebellious young man who forsakes the business career his father had tried
to force upon him, in order to become an “artist.”  Initially he was interested in music
and, with an accompanist, worked as an itinerant vocalist on the school program circuit,
introducing the operatic and Broadway repertoire to elementary and high-school students. 
Unfortunately, according to an interview with his brother-in-law, Sultner awoke one morning
to find his singing voice gone, and it never returned.  Still viewing himself as an
educator, he became a slide lecturer, showing his own travel photographs to a variety of
audiences.  His procedure was simple.  He loved to travel, both in the United States and
abroad, so he traveled the world, presenting illustrated lectures and taking new photographs
as he went, eventually assembling a collection of nearly one hundred thousand color slides. 
He even served as an entertainer on Holland America cruise ships, acting as master of
ceremonies and slide lecturer, then photographing on board and in port.

He was a relentless and passionate lecturer.  He was so interested in high-quality

imagery that he disdained the 35mm format and made 2-1/4” x 2-1/4” color slides on No. 120
Ektachrome and Agfachrome film in his Rolleiflex and Hasselblad cameras, and toted this gear and his own cumbersome projector and large screen on his travels.  He disdained Ansel Adams’s magnificent black-and-white images of nature, insisting they were incomplete, even
“fraudulent,” without color.   If he wanted to present a program at a particular venue, he
refused to take no for an answer, and often insisted on lecturing without a fee if an
organization couldn’t afford it.   He seemed to have a sense of mission, whether extolling
the virtues of baroque and rococo architecture or European and Asian scenery, or teaching
the elements of design with his own photographic examples.  His work is particularly
interesting because of his environmental concerns.  He was an early advocate of what he
called “beautification projects,” by which he often meant eliminating pollution of various
types, so the collection contains many examples of deliberately “ugly” pictures, documenting
eyesores, if not potential environmental disasters.  His concerns went deeper than
aesthetics, and some of his imagery anticipates the work of renowned “environmental”
photographers like Edward Burtynsky.   He also documented what we have sometimes called
“Americana,” in the form of roadside vendors with their homemade signs, and many of these
pictures are emblematic of aspects of American consumer culture in their time. 

An opera enthusiast because of its melding of visual splendor with gorgeous music,

Sultner was especially fond of the “multi-media” experience of Wagnerian opera, and
frequently visited the Bayreuth festivals.  Ever the ambitious showman, he began adding
music to his lectures.  At first it was recorded, but eventually he arranged to have live
accompaniment by symphony orchestras.  Sergiu Comissiona (1928-2005), former music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a Sultner admirer, even helped convince the Symphony to commission a musical composition in Sultner’s honor, “Concertino for Camera and Symphony Orchestra” by Eric Knight.

One of the issues embodied in this collection is the nature of photography as an art

form and photographers as artists—and how they perceive themselves.  Although Sultner was
devoted to the projected color transparency as his medium and seems to have had very little
interest in having his work published or shown in galleries or museums, he was concerned
about his legacy and craved recognition.  He admitted his own vanity, although he did not
always recognize its manifestations (this is true of many artists).  In one fascinating
diary account, he described showing his photographs to John Szarkowski, at that time the
famed curator of photography of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  He wrote that Szarkowski
dismissed his work as “good travel photographs,” and lamented the fact that someone of his
reputation as a top-flight curator and critic could demonstrate so little taste and
appreciation of the truth and beauty in a Sultner-Welles color image.  Szarkowski was
renowned at the time for his low opinion of most color photography.  In 1976, a few years
after his encounter with Sultner, Szarkowski gave William Eggleston the first Museum of Modern Art exhibition devoted solely to color photographs and proclaimed Eggleston one of the world's most important color photographers, undoubtedly to Sultner’s consternation.

Illustrations: Color transparencies by Donald Sultner-Welles

1.  Easter eggs, ca. 1970.
2.  Roadside pollution, ca. 1950-1960.
3. Water pollution, ca. 1950-1960.
4. Industrial pollution, ca. 1950-1960.
5. “Big Fruit” : Fruit vendor’s stand with sign, ca. 1960-1970.

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