The relationships that interest me are both biological and aesthetic, ecological in the broadest sense: interactions between living things and the physical environment, which includes rock, water, and ambient light.
—Eliot Porter, Eliot Porter (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987), 47.
Eliot Porter (1901–90) pioneered contemporary color nature photography. Prior to making photography his professional focus, Porter earned undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard, then worked in microbiology, biochemistry, bacteriology, and biophysics as a researcher and teacher, while doing camera work on the side. After encouragement and a show at An American Place (photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s last gallery in New York City), and backed by his family, he left medicine to devote his artistic life to photography.
Porter’s childhood summers spent exploring Great Spruce Head Island and other nearby islands in Maine’s Penobscot Bay first inspired him to seek out other unspoiled places as an adult. “Our lives there, my brothers’ and sister’s and mine, were from the first determined by the sea. High tide was the time to swim, and low tide the time to explore the shore,” he wrote. The Island was, as his son Stephen emphasizes, “one of the great influences of his life.” In scenes of the woodlands on his Maine island, Eliot Porter’s photographs imply permanence, but these places have been altered over time.
As a naturalist and artist, as a technician and biologist, he knew the underlying forces that created what he was looking at. He understood cellular and crystalline networks, surface tensions, chemical, mechanical and evolutionary changes causing structural and optical nuances. His photography emphasized the beauty of the complex and abstract pattern resulting from these larger forces. Many of his photos prompt a looking at detail and pattern that emerge from his depictions of close-ups of small worlds that we might trod upon on a casual woodland stroll. While his career is linked to artistry, and he is a guide to noticing details of sometimes hidden realms, and to relationships between features within a microcosm, his work has led us to consider broader concepts of interconnections between regional, continental, global environments—their effects upon one another and humankind’s impacts overall.
Many of us know his color photographs by way of large-format books, first published by the Sierra Club in the 1960s, and over the decades by several other publishers. He described places he explored on every continent, including Antarctica, through thirty books of unforgettable prose and imagery. A broader perspective emerges through these essays and photos built of impressions of beauty.
In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, his first collaboration with the Sierra Club, was closely associated with the mid-twentieth-century conservation movement, published soon after Rachel Carson’s revelations of the harm wrought by dependence upon pesticides in her book, Silent Spring. In the preface to In Wildness, Porter wrote that through his photographs paired with passages from writing by Henry David Thoreau, “I hoped to be able to complement in feeling and spirit Thoreau’s thinking one hundred years ago, and to show the peril we face even more today by our ever faster destruction of life not our own.”
During the 1950s plans were made to harness water from the upper Colorado River for irrigation projects for ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming; and for dams to provide water storage and release downstream to Arizona, California and Nevada. While some dam projects were dropped due to political pressure from conservation groups, Glen Canyon Dam, which began construction in 1957, was not. The damming of the Colorado created Lake Powell, which began filling on March 13, 1963 and completed filling on June 22, 1980 to 26 million acre-feet of water at storage capacity. When, in collaboration with a second book with the Sierra Club, Porter compiled his photographs along the Colorado River through Glen Canyon as The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, copies of the book were sent to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and every member of Congress, with a plea not to implement the Glen Canyon Dam and thereby inundate the canyon. The project associated with the book intensified Porter’s advocacy for the legacy of the wilderness. Working with a 2 ¼-inch camera while rafting and a 4 x 5-inch camera on land, Porter portrayed the canyon’s rock faces, water, and plants in one thousand images captured during his eleven trips to the area. His photographs suggest traces of molten, liquid beginnings of a geological past, exceeding their documentary value in revealing to the public the canyon’s forms and surfaces of abstract patterns of water, rock, and light—through an array of detail, the intrinsic beauty that was lost.
In a CBS Sunday Morning interview in 1988 Porter stated that he never would have been a good photographer had he gone out to photograph for the sake of a cause. Rather, his images are reflections of curiosity and delight in the beauty of places where he found himself. They are photographic records of discovery—of splendor amid complexity—and they continue to resonate, some with a certain poignancy, as they suggest what should be treasured, what must be preserved, that which could be, or has been lost.
In February this year we learned of several instances of record temperatures in various areas of Antarctica, brought to the fore by compelling Landsat 8 photos centering on Eagle Island, part of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula that stretches toward South America. The NASA satellite took dramatic images of disappearing ice cover that revealed underlying rock faces in a span of only nine days, between February 4th and 13th. Two days after the first photo was taken, the area hit 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit—matching that day’s temperature in Los Angeles. NASA noted that increasingly frequent warm spells during Antarctica’s summers have caused widespread and more common glacial melting not typical until this twenty-first century. Forty-five years after Porter took a series of breathtakingly majestic photographs of an icy blue continent, we are told that its northwest tip is among the fastest warming regions of the planet.
Last fall, I visited Great Spruce Head Island where members of the Porter family continue to summer. Soon after that visit, I learned that the journal Science had published the findings of a fifty-year study of 529 bird species by seven international institutions; a later analysis of that investigation concluded that on the North American continent alone the bird population has diminished by an unprecedented scale of nearly three billion in half a century. Though he would likely be horrified to know of the scale of their decline, as he was making groundbreaking photographs of nesting songbirds, Eliot Porter was becoming aware of their disappearing numbers even in his lifetime, even in Maine.
Image at top: Eliot Porter, Rose petals and Mussel Shells, Driftwood Beach, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, dye transfer print,12 7/16 x 16 1/16 in., 1971, Farnsworth Museum Purchase, 1988.7.