Eliot Porter: An Appreciation of a 20th Century Master of Landscape Photography

© Paul Mozell

Until I opened the book, “In Wildness Is The Preservation of the World,” I had not heard of the photographer Eliot Porter. As a high school junior I was unaware that landscape photography was a discipline within the visual arts, as distinct and noble as photography of sports, current events, portraits, fashion, and weddings.

Spruce Trees in Fog, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, August 20, 1954 (Amon Carter Museum of American Art P1990-51-3026-3)

Although I was the son of a professional cinematographer and still photographer, the names of photographic giants Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were of little importance to me. At the moment I first turned the pages of “In Wildness” in our living room, my teenaged mind — swirling with the psychedelic imagery of the Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and 1960’s pop art— was brought to a new place by the large-format, sublime, color photographs of Eliot Porter.

The volume of 72 color plates was edited by Sierra Club President David Brower who saw large format landscape photography as the perfect vehicle to stir up American environmental awareness. Enhanced by selections from the writing of Henry David Thoreau, the book has a spiritual quality that is greater than the sum of its written and visual parts.

In these days of High Dynamic Range (HDR), 36 megapixel DSLR files, carbon fiber tripods, Photoshop photo plug-ins, and LED continuous lights, and camera-phones, Eliot Porter’s creative and technical accomplishments are worthy of review and appreciation. First recognized as a pioneer in bird photography, Porter developed his observational skills during childhood adventures near the family home in Illinois, and at the family’s summer retreat on Great Spruce Head Island in Down-east Maine.

Eastern Flicker, Flying, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, July 22, 1968 (Amon Carter Museum of American Art P1990-52-118)

His ability to find hidden nests in brush and tree branches led to some astounding photographs of feeding chicks and mating behavior. Most often his set-up included a 4×5 field camera, one or more flash bulbs or strobe lights, and a triggering mechanism. Shot at close range, these photographs are intimate and revealing. The effort required to haul all this heavy gear into the field should not be minimized. He attended Harvard Medical School and worked briefly in scientific endeavors before answering the call to pursue nature photography full time.

As Ansel Adams’ black & white images made grand landscapes and dramatic vistas a part of our visual vocabulary, Eliot Porter focused on the details and subtlety of the landscape. To me, Porter’s work is about reflections, shapes, and delicacy. When I saw some Porter prints in a New York gallery for the first time, I was surprised by their diminutive dimensions  — slightly larger than 8×10 inches. Beyond the practicality of working with smaller film and paper, I suspect Porter’s goal was to challenge the viewer to contemplate and explore his photographs, rather than allow print size to distract from content and composition. Porter’s photographs demand exploration and repeated visits.

When the Eastman Kodak Company launched its Kodachrome transparency film, Porter was an early adopter of the new film. In its first editions, Kodachrome’s ASA (now called ISO) had a mere value of 5. This meant that exposures needed to be very long, and subjects chosen with care. This value of 5 is amazing when compared to the 5 digit ISO ratings of today’s cameras.

Poplars and Hillside, Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, October 17, 1967 (Amon Carter Museum of American Art P1990-51-4608-1)

A 4×5 inch positive transparency could be shown to a very limited audience. Porter pioneered once again, meticulously perfecting a color printing methodology known as Dye Transfer. In a process that today seems laborious, costly, and time-consuming, Porter produced exhibition prints with wide dynamic range and pin-point detail. It involved making red, green, and blue color separation negatives, followed by creation of three absorbent, flexible, matrix plates. In daylight, each matrix was immersed in a magenta, cyan, or yellow dye bath; after which each pin-registered matrix was in turn, applied to a sheet of coated paper; the dye transferring to the paper under the pressure of a hand-held rubber roller. By varying the acidity of the dye bath, and the exposure of the separation negatives, Porter had great control over color values and density.

When compared to modern digital photographs with highly saturated, in-your-face colors, Eliot Porter images might seem timid and restrained. But in their day, some Porter critics felt these mid-20th century photographs were unnatural. In every age, artistic innovations are challenged for their authenticity, until the artists and their work become achieve a certain level of fame.

I urge all photographers to explore the work of Eliot Porter. Perhaps you’ll be inspired as I was as a teenager. Look for the details in the landscape. Find the magic of a back-lit forest. The beauty of a small cascade on a cloudy day.

I was fortunate to see Porter speak at Boston University in the early 1980’s. His many books document extensive travels through the red-rock canyons of the Southwest, China, the Galapagos, Africa, Antarctica, Mexico, the Appalachians, Iceland, and of course Maine. He also photographed people, dwellings, and churches and kept detailed journals. Porter collaborated with renowned writers: Wallace Stegner, Joseph Wood Crutch, and Peter Matthiessen.  The Porter archives are maintained by The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.


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One Comment:

  1. Very nice commentary on Eliot Porter and “In Wildness…” I was lucky. When I was 3 my family built a camp in a remote area of Northwestern, Maine. At the same time, my father was a gifted amateur photographer and we had a darkroom in our home in Brookline, Ma. I started developing and printing my own B&W photos around age 10 and won a “best in State” Scholastic Art Award for a photo I took while sailing I when I was in high school. (I refused to give up my negative to Kodak and hence, my photo never travelled the world — more importantly, I still have the negative!) By adolescence I was familiar with and moved by the works of Eliot Porter. I must have read “In Wildness..” at least 10 times. Am still a great fan of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and went to as many exhibits as I could when I was younger. I would like to return to “In Wildness” in many ways.

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