Porter began to photograph birds and landscapes with a Kodak box camera as a child at his family’s summer home in Maine. He earned a BS in chemical engineering from Harvard University in 1924, and an MD from Harvard Medical School in 1929, then taught and researched there until 1938.
Porter acquired a Leica in 1930, and in 1933 was powerfully moved by the photographs of Ansel Adams, who encouraged him to work with a large-format camera. Porter did so upon meeting Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited his work at An American Place in 1939, after which Porter devoted himself to a photographic career. In 1940 he began to specialize in color, and learned to make his own separation negatives and dye transfer prints. Porter was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941 to photograph birds; the Museum of Modern Art exhibited his Birds of Color in 1943. He settled in Santa Fe in 1946, and his Guggenheim grant was renewed three years later. In the early and middle 1950s Porter traveled to Mexico to photograph church architecture, and thereafter continued traveling and documenting his travels. Glen Canyon, Adirondack Park, Baja California, the Galapágos Islands, Greece, Turkey, the Grand Canyon, Appalachia, Africa, Iceland, Antarctica, and China were the subject of books and portfolios. Porter had numerous individual exhibitions at major institutions, and his extensive awards included the Conservation Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Gold Medal of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and honorary doctorates from Colby College, the University of Albuquerque, and Dickinson College.
Ansel Adams described Porter as “master of nature’s color,” and Porter’s contemplative intimate landscapes bear witness to his enduring affection and respect for the wilderness and its animal inhabitants. Influenced by Henry David Thoreau, Porter sought to create visual equivalents of passages from Thoreau that inspired him. Indeed, he included selections from Thoreau in his first monograph, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962) published by the Sierra Club, on whose Board of Directors Porter served from 1962-68.