by Gerald Boerner
Eliot Porter was a photographer who bridged nature photography and fine art. He was a master of capturing images in both black and white as well as color. For the latter, he became proficient at using the Dye Transfer Printing process to create brilliant, full color prints in the darkroom. His breadth of subject matter and technique provides us with a portfolio that we should all aspire to. Be sure to visit the Amon Carter Museum web site and view the gallery of his work, which is still covered by copyright. GLB
“Sometimes you can tell a large story with a tiny subject.”
— Eliot Porter
“There is no subject and background, every corner is alive.”
— Fairfield Porter, Painter and Critic
“You know Ken, color is not recognized — that’s my life mission, to create a body of work that will get it recognized, help put it on the same footing as black-and-white.”
— Eliot Porter, in a Conversation with Kenneth Parker
“A kind of revolution was under way, for with the publication of this supremely well-crafted book, conservation ceased to be a boring chapter on agriculture in fifth-grade textbooks, or the province of such as birdwatchers.”
— Reviewer of Porter’s Work
“Photography is a strong tool a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment … and therefore for the fostering of a healthy human race and even very likely for its survival.”
— Eliot Porter
“You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis, you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”
— Eliot Porter
“Much is missed if we have eyes only for the bright colors Nature should be viewed without distinction…. She makes no choice herself; everything that happens has equal significance. Nothing can be dispensed with. This is a common mistake that many people make: They think that half of nature can be destroyed–the uncomfortable half–while still retaining the acceptable and the pleasing side.”
— Eliot Porter
“Perhaps the central question about [Eliot] Porter’s work is about the relationship between science, aesthetics, and environmental politics. His brother, the painter and critic Fairfield Porter, wrote in a 1960 review of [Porter's] colour photographs: ‘There is no subject and background, every corner is alive,’ and this suggests what an ecological aesthetic might look like.”
— Rebecca Solnit
The quotes included in this posting were taken from the public quotation sites which did not indicate that they are covered by any special copyright restrictions. Likewise, the images included in this posting were obtained under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License from the Wikipedia.com web site which did not state any restrictions on their use. This blog makes every attempt to comply with the legal rights of copyright holders.
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Eliot Porter (1901–1990)
An amateur photographer since childhood, when he photographed the Great Spruce Head Island owned by his family, Porter earned degrees in chemical engineering and medicine, and worked as a biochemical researcher at Harvard University. Around 1930 he was introduced to Ansel Adams by a friend of the family and to Alfred Stieglitz by his brother Fairfield Porter. Stieglitz continued to critique Porter’s black and white work, now taken with a small Linhof view camera. In 1938, Stieglitz showed Porter’s work in his New York City gallery. The exhibit’s success prompted Porter to leave Harvard and pursue photography full-time. In the 1940s, he began working in color with Eastman Kodak’s new dye transfer process, a technique Porter would use his entire career.
The Getty Museum’s exhibition of Porter’s work, Eliot Porter: In the Realm of Nature, describes Porter’s contribution to photography as follows:
American photographer Eliot Porter was among the first to successfully bridge the gap between photography as a fine art and its roots in science and technology. Porter promoted the use of color photography from the 1940s until the mid-1970s, a time when most serious photographers worked in black and white. Porter’s work was widely published and used as a powerful visual argument for nature conservation. He explored new ways of presenting the natural world and his artistic and technical contributions to bird and landscape photography transformed these genres.
Porter’s reputation increased following the publication of his 1962 book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World. Published by the Sierra Club, the book featured Porter’s color nature studies of the New England woods and quotes by Henry David Thoreau. A best-seller, several editions of the book have been printed.
Porter traveled extensively to photograph ecologically important and culturally significant places. He published books of photographs from Glen Canyon (Utah), Maine, Baja California, Galápagos Islands, Antarctica, East Africa, and Iceland. Cultural studies included Mexico, Egypt, China, Czechoslovakia, and ancient Greek sites.
“As a child all living things were a source of delight to me … I still remember clearly some of the small things–objects of nature–I found outdoors. Tiny potato-like tubers that I dug out of the ground in the woods behind the house where I lived, orange and black spiders sitting on silken ladders in their webs, sticky hickory buds in the spring, and yellow filamentous witch hazel flowers blooming improbably in November are a few that I recall. I did not think of them as beautiful, I am sure, or as wondrous phenomena of nature, although this second reaction would come closest to the effect they produced on me. As children do, I took it all for granted, but I believe it is not an exaggeration to say, judging from the feeling of satisfaction they gave me when I rediscovered them each year, that I loved them.”
— Eliot Porter
James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) caused Porter to reexamine his work in the context of chaos theory. They collaborated on a project published in 1990 as Nature’s Chaos, which combined his photographs with a new essay by Gleick. Porter died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1990 and bequeathed his personal archive to the Amon Carter Museum.
Eliot Porter’s brother, Fairfield, was a realist painter and art critic. His brother-in-law Michael W. Straus was the commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Biography of Eliot Porter
The Amon Carter Museum in Santa Fe, NM, was bequeathed the photo archives by Eliot Porter upon his death. On their web site, they present the following biography of Porter, which we reproduce here for your convenience. Please check out the full archive and gallery at the URL in the reference list below. Porter’s biography tells us:
Eliot Furness Porter was born in 1901 in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois, the second of five children in an upper-middle-class family. His father, an amateur architect and natural history enthusiast, managed the family’s Chicago real estate and infused in his children a love of learning and the sciences. His mother, a Bryn Mawr graduate, shared her active support for liberal social causes. Given his first camera in 1911, Porter immediately challenged himself to photograph birds, first around his Winnetka home and then at the family’s summer retreat, Great Spruce Head Island, in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Sent East for high school, he followed family tradition by enrolling at Harvard, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1923 and a medical degree in 1929.
Initially, Porter took up a career as a biochemical researcher at Harvard. But he could never quite let go of his love of photography. Spurred by support from his brother, the realist painter Fairfield Porter, and introductions in the mid-1930s to the acclaimed artist-photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, he found himself increasingly photographing the northern New England landscape. In 1938 Stieglitz offered to exhibit some of these black-and-white photographs, along with several images that Porter made on an excursion to Austria, at his important New York City gallery, An American Place. That one-person show signaled Porter as a leading artist, on a par with such respected photographers as Paul Strand, Adams, and Stieglitz himself. It induced Porter to quit his medical career and take up photography full-time. But rather than continue to work in black and white, Porter almost immediately took up color to create more accurate photographs of birds. Soon he added other woodland subjects to his repertoire and became the first established artist-photographer to commit to exploring the colorful beauty and diversity of the natural world.
Over much of Porter’s career, black-and-white photography continued to set the artistic standard, and he had to fight his colleagues’ prejudices against the medium. But in 1962 he gained a major boost when the Sierra Club published "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World." That immensely popular book, combining his evocative color photographs of New England woods with excerpts from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, revolutionized photographic book publishing by setting new standards for design and printing and proving the commercial viability of fine art photography books. Its success set Porter on a lifelong path of creating similar photographic portraits of a wide variety of ecologically significant places the world over.
Building on the success of "In Wildness" and subsequent photographic celebrations of Glen Canyon (in Utah), Maine, and the Adirondacks, Porter moved increasingly farther afield to photograph and complete books heralding more distant and unusual sites. Such places included Baja California, Mexico, the Galápagos, East Africa, and Antarctica, all of which drew his attention because of their ecological diversity and the environmental stresses they faced. In the late 1960s, he added cultural topics to his agenda, eventually completing photographic studies of classical Greek sites, ruins of ancient Egypt, and modern China. All told, the artist published twenty-five books and was working on several more when he died in 1990.
Porter never gave up his passion for birds, continuing to photograph them almost every spring until failing health in the 1980s prevented that often strenuous work. He always remained fascinated by the scientific and ecological underpinnings of his subjects, be they animal, plant, or mineral. In the 1950s he would at times set himself such tasks as photographing new-born spiders or the life cycle of a mosquito. Lichen was one of his favorite subjects; he sought it out wherever he traveled. The publication of James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) led him to review his life’s work in recognition of his own implicit illustration of Gleick’s influential theory.
But Porter’s fascination with nature’s workings and strong environmentalist ethic never superceded his passion for art. Throughout his life, he remained committed to making and exhibiting meticulously rendered dye transfer color prints of his photographs. In the 1940s and 1950s, when lines between art and natural history museums were more fluid, he was just as likely to show at the American Museum of Natural History as the Museum of Modern Art. Art museums’ gradual acceptance of color in the 1960s and 1970s led to a regular stream of monographic exhibitions at both large and small venues. Highlights include Intimate Landscapes (1980), the first one-person show of color photographs presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and major retrospectives sponsored by the Art Museum of the University of New Mexico (1973) and the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1987 and 2002).
Married twice, Porter fathered five sons. In 1946 he established his permanent home in Tesuque, just outside of Santa Fe. It was there that he made his prints and assembled his books.
Dye Transfer Printing
Eliot porter was proficient in using the Dye Transfer Printing process to create brilliant color prints from his 4X5 view camera. The Amon Carter Museum includes the following description of his technique:
As its name implies, the dye transfer process literally involves transferring dyes (cyan, magenta, and yellow) in succession and in careful registration onto a sheet of gelatin-coated paper. Porter remained committed to the dye transfer process, both before and after the invention of simpler and more commonly used color papers, because it delivered richly colored prints and allowed him to control the exact hues and contrast of each final print.
- Porter would initially shoot a scene generally on 4-by-5-inch inch transparency film, recording the exposure conditions on a card.
- After developing the transparency, he would create three separation negatives by exposing the transparency three times onto three separate sheets of 4-by-5-inch black-and-white film. He would make the first exposure through a red filter, the second exposure through a green filter, and the third through a blue one.
- He then would create three matrices by shining white light through each separation negative via enlargement onto its own sheet of matrix film. (Each matrix would hold an image the same size as the final print.) The resulting matrices are positive images that have a slight relief. The thicker parts print as darker areas. Generally he would sandwich the separation negatives with masks to further control contrast. These masks were softly focused versions of the darker information on the separation negatives.
- To make a print, Porter would soak the red-filtered matrix in a bath of cyan dye, the green-filtered matrix in magenta dye, and the blue-filter matrix in yellow dye. Each matrix would soak up the dye according to its thickness, with the thicker areas picking up more color. He then would place one end of each dye-carrying matrix, in turn, onto register pins at the end of a special gelatin-coated paper and carefully roll it in contact with the paper. After about four minutes, when the dye had completely transferred to the paper, he would lift the matrix off, wash it, and register and roll the next matrix into place. The three dyes together would produce a full color print.
- He could subtly change the hues and contrast of each print by changing the acidity of his dye baths and by resoaking and rerolling one or more of the matrices onto the receiving paper. He would record the various "recipes" used to achieve a good print in an ongoing printing notebook.
- Once settling on a printing "recipe," Porter would write that recipe on a printing card for future reference, in case he had to make another print of that same image in the future.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Eliot Porter can be found at…
Amon Carter Museum (Santa Fe, NM): Eliot Porter …
Getty Museum Exhibit: Eliot Porter_In the Realm of Nature…
BNET: In Photography is the Preservation of the World_Eliot Porter