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Friday, January 30, 2015

Beauty Vs. Visual Pollution

"Roadside Pollution," color transparency by Donald H. Sultner-Welles, ca. 1950s.
Donald H. Sultner-Welles Collection, NMAH Archives Center. 
The American photographer Donald Sultner-Welles (1914-1981) saw himself as a free-lance educator on the subject of beauty.  The NMAH Archives Center’s collection of his life’s work highlights his favorite beauty themes, including Baroque and Rococo architecture, fountains, mountain landscapes, rosy-cheeked children, and even close-up color abstractions.   He sought to present his large-format color slides to audiences all over the world.  He traveled widely in the United States and abroad (including as an entertainer on cruise ships) in order to photograph and augment his slide collection of the beauties of nature, people, and picturesque man-made art and architecture, as well as to present his illustrated lectures to new audiences.  As he traveled and photographed, he found not only beauty, but troubling evidence of the myriad ways in which humans managed to ruin their environment, in terms of both quality of life and visual aesthetics.  While he was fascinated with the ability of color film to record the wonders of the world, he realized that documentary photography could be enlisted as an important tool in the fight against the tendencies of humans to “pollute” their own environments at all levels, including governmental, industrial, and personal.  Sultner-Welles characterized most of the ugliness he photographed as “pollution,” and one gets the distinct impression that he was as offended on aesthetic grounds as much as any other factors.  Nevertheless, he was one of the first photographers of the twentieth century to create color photographs dedicated to a lecture crusade against environmental vandalism.  Above is one of the photographs which he intended to offend viewers’ sensibilities at the simplest, most iconic, and personal level—a stark example of the ubiquity of ordinary trash.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
National Museum of American History Archives Center        

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