In today’s digital world it can be hard to remember that photography once relied on cameras, chemicals, and a darkroom. For many decades the magic of an image did not just occur with the snapping of the shutter, but also in the darkroom where the manipulation of exposure could produce dramatic effects. The Walker Art Center darkroom was the domain for many exceptional museum photographers in the last century. But photographer Eric Sutherland had a special attachment to the Walker’s darkroom.
Sutherland was the Walker’s staff photographer from 1953 to 1978, shooting some of the center’s most iconic images, including Marcel Duchamp’s portrait, Christo’s Balloon Ascension (1966), and Dan Flavin’s corridor of light—Untitled (1971), featured on the cover of the November/December issue of Walker magazine. In these photographs Sutherland captures the spirit of the moment with his meticulous attention to detail and his command of darkroom technique. This is particularly evident in the series of photographs that he shot of Duchamp. Duchamp with Bicycle Wheel (1913) captures the artist in what appears to be a spontaneous moment, with martini in hand and an impish grin. By contrast, the rarely seen image of Duchamp with his readymade Why Not Sneeze (1921), taken at the same event as the Bicycle Wheel shot, creates shadows that makes Duchamp look sinister.
But in the darkroom Sutherland had precise control over the look of his final prints. Through the use of an enlarger he would project the negative onto chemically sensitive paper, process the paper through a series of chemical baths, then hang it to dry. He might make several prints before arriving at the exact effect he is looking for. Some areas of the negative would require more or less light to create the desired result. Sutherland created detailed “dodge” and “burn” tools in order to manipulate the amount of exposure certain areas of the paper received.
In addition to his darkroom wizardry, Sutherland kept copious records. His scribbled notes are legendary, rigorously jotting down film types, exposure times, chemical temperatures, and personal evaluation on negative sleeves, film boxes and contact prints. His thorough documentation preserves his method and and process and provides insight into how a photograph was once made.
In 1968, when the Walker Art Center was preparing for a new building by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, Sutherland turned his camera on his own darkroom. He took detailed photographs of the layout of his operation so that it could be recreated in the new building exactly as it was in the old building.
It was an eerie experience to stand in the darkroom in the Barnes building and look at the photographs that inspired it: the two spaces were nearly identical, just as Sutherland planned. Today the photos remain an interesting and haunting set of images that detail a process that is no longer practiced and document a space that is no longer a darkroom. Thanks to these images and Sutherland’s notations we have a comprehensive and preserved record of how photographs were created in the 20th Century.