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TODD WALKER

January 3 - February 21, 2009 at Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood

by Jody Zellen


Todd Walker was born in Salt Lake City in 1917 and raised in Southern California. He experimented with a box camera as a child and even built his own enlarger in order to make blow ups, and studied the differences in developing solutions. He became an established commercial photographer, making advertisements for numerous car companies in the 1940’s. He gave up that career in order to focus on his art photography. Beginning in the 1960's he focused on alternative processes--experimenting with non-silver techniques like solarization and carbon prints, as well as the possibilities within the printmaking medium such as photo lithography before moving into the digital arena at the end of his life. While not well known in photographic circles, Walker was a beloved teacher at the University of Florida, Gainsville, and at the University of Arizona, Tuscon.

Walker was a contemporary of Robert Heinekin, Jerry Uselman and Doug Prince, artists whose photographic works fell outside mainstream photographic practices. These artists sandwiched negatives, explored nontraditional methods of development, and created three dimensional works with their images. As Walker was exposed to and began to exhibit with these artists, his work and methods became better known and understood. There is an intrigue in his work, which still makes you ask "how was it done?" Walker shared his process and techniques, and many of his formulas can now be seen on the website devoted to his work (http://personal.riverusers.com/~jdf/todd_walker/index.html).



"Pearl," c. 1968, dye
coupler Sabattier solarization.






"Becky," c. 1973, dye
coupler Sabattier solarization.







"Woman with Two Heads," no date,
dye coupler Sabattier solarization.






"
Shari's Back," 1977,
lithograph, 11 1/4 x 8 1/2".

During his lifetime (he died in 1997), Walker exhibited in numerous exhibitions worldwide. His works, whether in black and white or color, explored subjects ranging from self-portraiture to the nude to the landscape. Many of his photographs were made using the Sabattier Effect, also know as solarization, where a light was turned on during the image's development causing dark outlines to surround the image (Man Ray also made notable use of this technique). In the Sabattier images like the one depicting a nude woman whose lower torso and head is covered in drapery, the qualities of the skin tones on the body give way to blotchy surfaces creating a painterly effect. In "Becky" (1973) the original photograph is transformed into a colorful design that suggests a body where the skin tones become orange, the shadows green and the background a purple-pink.

Nudes were a favored subject of Walker’s. In exploring the female form he allowed the woman's body to ebb and flow as a surface of abstract shapes and colorful forms. In his landscape works the imagery is denser and more abstract. The textures of the ground, trees and mountains lose their original content and context, reading primarily as fields of contrasting colors and lines. Since alternative processes consumed Walker throughout the last half of his life, it seems hardly surprising that he also became interested in what he could do with a computer. According to his daughter, Walker never used Photoshop. Instead, he wrote his own computer programs and later made use of QFX freeware and POV, or Persistence of Vision--software primarily designed for cartography. With these techniques he was able to create digital works that blurred, inverted and obscured the original image, making it into an expressive rather than detailed representation of reality.

Looking at the work Walker made during the 1980's, one is struck by the primitive quality of the manipulation, less because it reflects the then limited capacity of digital technology than that it renders this technology uniquely expressive. In today's digital work, manipulation that once would have been beyond anyone’s reach has become commonplace and easy. Walker was a pioneer whose work deserves recognition in an interesting sense; what may appear ordinary often is anything but.