When Geoff Sutton unveils a retrospective of his photography at Gallery Saintonge on First Friday, it may feel like the first time the influential local businessman and former gallery owner has ever showcased his own artwork. Both the artist and the gallery are treating it as such—taking an introductory tone with the work of an artist whose reputation was forged on the promotion of other artists’ work. But, technically speaking, Sutton’s upcoming display will not be his first solo exhibit.
“In 1976 I had a little show at the Warehouse Gallery,” Sutton says, with a tinge of amusement at the memory. “That was the last time I ever did anything like this. And to be completely honest, I’m actually pretty nervous.”
For nearly three decades, Sutton has been the one introducing artists, not the one being introduced. In addition to opening and owning Sutton West gallery for 21 years (which, after he sold it, continued as Gallery Blue until closing late last year), he founded Missoula’s First Friday gallery night in 1989. During that time he helped launch or boost the careers of countless regional artists, and became a fixture in Missoula’s overall art scene. More recently, working with the World Trade Center at the University of Montana, he continues to operate behind the scenes as curator of international exchange exhibitions, among other roles. All that work has made Sutton well known in the arts community, but it’s also overshadowed what he calls his “hobby” of photography.
“In 1973 I went to Mexico with the University of Montana to do some anthropology research and borrowed a camera from some other people on the trip and took it to this village,” Sutton says. “I took my first photographs up there and it was sort of a life-changing experience.”
Ever since, two facts have remained integral to Sutton’s personal and professional life: travel and photography. The result of the intervening 33 years—including those initial Mexico images—comprise the Gallery Saintonge exhibit, which features an estimated 600 images arranged in no particular order, edge-to-edge and nearly floor-to-ceiling on three walls of the main room. With 40 countries covered in the exhibit—exotic locales include Oman, Martinique and Lesotho—the scattershot approach has the impact of an explosion at the National Geographic archives: a portrait of indigenous Chinese workers is sandwiched by a desert landscape and a glimpse of third-world urban decay. None of the images are labeled, although information on each photo is available in a handout.
“The idea isn’t to present a chronological history,” says gallery director Kerri Rosenstein. “It’s more about Geoff and his life’s work than about documenting, say, Cuba. He’s someone who’s done so much for this community, and I think it shows how he’s been connected to so many other communities. It shows a real understanding of people and place.”
Until now, Sutton’s passion for photography has gone as nearly unnoticed as the never-before-seen prints in his exhibit. He pursued it as a hobby throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies at UM, and then, by accident, turned it into his profession in 1978. That year, on the verge of completing his master’s degree in anthropology, a car struck his motorcycle outside of Hellgate High School. The incident shook up Sutton more than physically—it prompted him to reconsider his future and apply for a job as a commercial photographer.
“I lied through my teeth about my experience and the equipment I had just to get the job,” says Sutton. “When I got it, I had to borrow the money from a bank to get the equipment, then talk to some friends to figure out how to do the assignment.”
A short time later, Sutton started his own commercial photography business, shooting senior portraits, weddings, high school sports teams, UM athletics and more. The success of the business eventually led to the opening of Sutton West.
“I supported the gallery with my photography,” Sutton says. “I used to do two weddings every weekend and hundreds of senior portraits and everything until, really, the mid-’90s and then I could just do the gallery.” (He still takes occasional commercial assignments, including shoots with The Montana Rep and stringer work for USA Today.)
But Sutton’s upcoming exhibit is a world apart from football team portraits. Collectively titled A Diary: 33 and 1/3 years, the images illustrate what is essentially a lifelong travelogue. Sutton, who suffers from dyslexia, has never kept a journal, instead preferring to document the world with his camera. He says he can remember the exact place and people associated with every photo in the display.
“The pictures became my journals,” says Sutton. “I never meant for them to be artistic.”
Sutton’s not just being modest. When he visited the gallery last week, fresh off his latest trip to Ireland, he arrived just as the first images were being hung on the wall—and promptly left.
“I just thought, I gotta get outta here. I can’t handle this right now,” Sutton says. “I’ve given some slide shows to friends and some educational slide shows for local schools, but nobody’s seen most of this stuff—and it’s pretty personal.”
You’ll excuse Sutton if he’s apprehensive. Despite his track record, this all still feels like his first time.
Geoff Suttons’s A Diary: 33 and 1/3 years opens at Gallery Saintonge Friday, Nov. 3, with a First Friday reception beginning at 5 PM. The exhibit will be on display through Tuesday, Nov. 28.