Combining a love of color photography with an unerring eye
Combining a love of color photography with an unerring eye, Eliot Porter was a watershed photographer. In the 1930’s he became intrigued with Kodachrome film and the beauty of color photography. This was at a time when its literalness was seen as a negative and an impediment to be taken seriously, however, Porter saw the potential expressive power of its exact rendering of nature.
From Biochemistry to Photography
Eliot Porter was born in 1901 and as a young boy accompanied his father, James, on nature trips in their summer home in Maine. He was precocious and taught himself darkroom techniques and his early fascination and joy in photography never left him. After attending Harvard college and obtaining a degree in biochemistry, his parents thought he needed a career and he went on to obtain a degree in medicine from Harvard. He taught biochemistry from the age of 28 for the next decade – and after showing Stieglitz his photographs, Stieglitz gave him a one man exhibit in 1939 at his influential gallery, “An American Place.” With his encouragement, Porter devoted the rest of his life to his true love – photography.
Capturing Natural Wonders
Through the 1940’s and 1950’s Porter’s greatest fame came as a bird photographer. However the set ups for the bird photographs were often so elaborate and time consuming that he started to notice and become intrigued by the elements of the landscape that surrounded him. As his purview broadened he realized that the entire natural world, seen through his 4 x 5 camera was an amazing spectacle his output enlarged and he began to travel far and wide in his investigation of natural phenomena. He would continue to explore and photograph natural wonders through out the world for the remainder of his life.
The Father of Dye Transfer
His eye was always both sharp and refined, but married to this was his early embrace of the technology of making dye transparency photographs. This was a relatively new technology in the 1940s and its ability to show vibrant yet nuanced color was unprecedented. It was a difficult, and potentially toxic, procedure in which each negative had to be processed into three separations and then each was individually printed with a specific range of color – and the three negatives were printed in registration with one another to build a densely, saturated final image. Porter originally taught himself the process – and later used specialty labs. He was so dedicated to the process and became such a great printer that he became known as the “father of dye transfer.” This process is no longer used as the film has been discontinued and contemporary photographers, for the largest part, have embraced digital printing – which is far easier and less dangerous.
“Master of Nature’s Color”
Eliot Porter had the pioneering spirit of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Ansel Adams aptly credited Porter as “master of nature’s color.” His dedication to photography was total. Porter was influenced by the naturalist Henry David Thoreau with his keen observation of nature and its relationship to his life. He was one of the few photographers to be given two Guggenheim fellowships. Eliot Porter was honored with two exhibits of his dye-transfer color prints at The Museum of Modern Art in New York – one in 1943 and in 1959. He was given the first one-man exhibit for a living photographer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1980 which showed his larger body of nature images, “Intimate Landscapes.”
The photographs that are available in the Holden Luntz Gallery inventory is largely from “In Wildness” which was shown at the Smithsonian Institution and was the content of Porter’s first book. The images masterfully show Porter’s attention to detail, texture, and form allowing the viewer to appreciate the richness of nature. The photographs are studies of the harmonics of color. Porter wanted to show nature as accurately as possible and the laborious task of producing dye transfer photographs was the best way he knew to make an image as true a record as possible. To this day, his photographs are considered the bellwether standard for color landscape photography.
An Environmentalist and Ecologist
Well before it was either trendy, politically correct. or a buzzword, Porter was a true environmentalist and ecologist. He lived with a total commitment. Spending time reflecting on his glorious work is a cogent reminder of what there is to loose if we don’t collectively respect nature and take action in its stewardship. Eliot Porter died in 1990 and his archive of photographs, transparencies, diaries, and notebooks were donated to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.