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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Eliot Porter


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If you’ve ever taken a nature photograph…budding trees in spring, fallen leaves in the autumn, a bird nesting, a lichen-covered stone…you owe a debt to Eliot Porter. Virtually all modern nature photography is an imitation of (and occasionally an improvement on) the style created and developed by Porter.

The photographs you see in this discussion are bland by modern standards. The colors are somewhat dull, the composition may seem mundane, the subject matter might seem banal or even trite. What you need to remember, though, is that Eliot Porter is essentially the original modern nature photographer. Eliot Porter was there first.

Until Porter came along, all serious photography was done in black and white. Artistic landscape photography was lodged firmly in the Ansel Adams school – impressive vistas photographed on a grand scale. Porter changed all that. He doggedly championed the use of color in photography against fierce resistance from the photographic community, and he insisted that nature photography should include a more intimate perspective.

Most people, Porter asserted, experienced nature on a close scale. Walks in the park, visiting cemeteries, drives through semi-rural areas. Beauty wasn’t to be found only in Yosemite or the desert, it needn’t be formal or awe-inspiring. Beauty could also be found in the informal and the simple. The leaf floating on the surface of a pond.

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It must be remembered that although color film became commercially available in 1935, it was primarily used for documentary purposes…not for art. In fact, that was originally the reason Porter began to work in color. Porter had a distinctly scientific mind; he was originally a biochemical researcher whose interest in photography was largely driven by his hobby as a birder. In 1939 he attempted to interest a publisher in a book on bird photography; the publisher rejected the idea because the black and white photographs didn’t give an accurate idea of the colors of the birds.

Porter immediately set out to master color photography. He initially relied on a very slow color: ASA 4. That’s right…4. It was also at that time that Porter began his practice of using complex techniques for processing his prints. He didn’t, however, restrict himself to photographing birds. Instead, he re-invented nature and landscape photography.

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This led eventually to the publication of his first book: In Wildness is the Preservation of the World. This was a seminal work in many ways. It not only redefined a genre of photography, it brought a new standard for the design and printing of photography books. We are accustomed to such books now, but in 1962 this sort of oversized “coffee table” book was revolutionary. The book also brought huge popular attention to its publisher, the Sierra Club, making it the best known and most powerful environmental organization in the U.S. Despite the fact that it sold for a very high price ($25 in 1962), the book was a massive commercial success.

It took another decade or so before the landscape and art photography community began to embrace color photography. Porter continued to take intimate nature photographs for the rest of his life. He never abandoned his interest in the sciences, however. The last book Porter published in his lifetime was Nature’s Chaos, which combined his photographs with the writing of scientist Richard Gleick (whose 1987 book Chaos popularized chaos theory). Porter died at the age of 89 in 1990, the same year the book was published.

Eliot Porter’s work now seems almost commonplace. It’s hard now to imagine an era in which his style and approach could be seen as subversive to the art of photography. It says something about the elastic nature of art that a style once decried as a threat is now so unexceptional that it is sometimes disparaged as mundane.