Freeze Frame

Eliot Porter Winter Wren, 1969 Amon Carter Museum Collection*

Sometimes it takes a scientific mind to re-calibrate the artistic eye.  Eliot Porter’s parents had instilled a love of nature and science in him from an early age, and he’d been photographing birds since received his first camera at the age of 10.  His training in medicine and as a chemical engineer didn’t dampen his interest, in fact he was among the first to bridge the gap between photography as a fine art and its foundations in technology and science.

The success of Porter’s one man exhibit of black and white landscape photographs at Alfred Stieglitz’s New York gallery spurred him to quit medicine and work on his art fulltime.  But despite the artistic acclaim the exhibit received, comparing Porter with his contemporaries, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Stieglitz himself,  Porter quickly began exploring the new forms of color photography.  His background in chemistry made him aptly suited to experimentation with the new Kodachrome transparency film, and he took his work beyond the “literal” (the term used to define why color photography was unsuitable for art at at the time) by slightly increasing the brilliance, contrast, or saturation in the transparencies with dye transfer printing.

In 1962 Porter collaborated with The Sierra Club, publishing “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.” The immediate best seller combined his evocative photographs of New England woods with the writings of Henry David Thoreau. The Place No One Knew, Glen Canyon on the Colorado, published the following year, helped influence the Congress to pass the Wilderness Act in 1964.  With the success of these books Porter went on to create photographic portraits of ecologically significant places around the world.

Porter’s boyhood love of birds never left him, and he continued to photograph them along with his seminal landscapes. In the 1940s he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph various species of North American birds, with the goal of raising “bird photography above the level of reportage, to transform it into an art.”  To do so, he developed the first stop-action system with strobe lamps and a tripod-mounted camera designed to hold large format film, enabling him to visually stop the movement of small, swift birds and capture them and their immediate surroundings in sharp focus.

Birds, landscapes or abstract depictions of nature’s chaos, Porter’s work has been equally at home in museums of natural history and of fine arts, and has been used as a powerful visual argument for nature conservation.

In 1970 he wrote:

“It has been said that wildness is a luxury, a commodity that man will be forced to dispense with as his occupancy of the earth approaches saturation. If this happens, he is finished. Wilderness must be preserved; it is a spiritual necessity.”

Standing with the giants of Adams, Strand and Stieglitz on the one hand, and Muir, Burroughs and Thoreau on the other, Porter hands us biophilia, framed and in living color.

* All photos from the Amon Carter Museum Collection

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