Aztec Creek, Utah. Photo: Eliot Porter
I have admired Eliot Porter's photographs for many years. But it was only recently that I discovered the depth and breadth of his work.
His subject is nature in all its splendid variations. He was also a pioneering bird photographer. His photographs are special because they draw the viewer close to the subject. It is as if one gets to have one's own intimate conversation with nature.
Porter (1901-1990) was born in Illinois, USA, to an affluent family. He attended Harvard University, receiving his medical degree in 1929. His planned career as a medical researcher changed when he acquired a Leica camera and began photographing in his spare time.
Meetings with influential photographers helped him decide on his life's direction. In 1935, he met the seminal photographer Alfred Stieglitz who encouraged him to continue working. The following year he met Ansel Adams and saw some of the majestic photographs of Adams. These photographs convinced him to pursue photography with more commitment and zeal.
While the influence cannot be ignored, there are marked differences between the work of Adams and Porter. Adams' photographs, in black-and-white, are formal and majestic, designed to show the glory of nature in all its splendour; you, the viewer, are a spectator. Porter's work is, I think, more personal – the kinds of things you encounter if you are out walking in the wilderness: a collection of leaves underfoot, water in a stream, or an unusually beautiful tree standing out among others in a grove.
I was amazed by Porter's bird photographs. Photographed close to nest, they are usually doing what birds do best: flying or eating a worm. But there is also feeling of being close to them.
The technique he used - during the 1950s - for bird photography was astounding. Since he photographed with a large view camera on tripod, he had to construct platforms high up where he could place his camera as he photographed birds in nest. He also had to use bright lights and so carried batteries up to the platform. In short, with cumbersome and heavy equipment, he was able to create some beautiful images.
Porter's work was also instrumental in conservation in America. His book of photographs called In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World was published by the Sierra Club to great acclaim. It helped galvanize public opinion about preservation of wilderness. His next book was intended to stop the building of a dam. The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado was published by Sierra Club which sent a copy to every member of Congress. While the book could not stop the dam, it inspired Congress to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Another area where Porter innovated was in colour photography. He used a method invented by Kodak called “dye-transfer printing” to print his colour photographs. This method yielded high quality colour photographs. The rich and expressive colours of his prints convinced many about the artistic potential of colour photography at a time when black-and-white ruled the day.
In today's glut of easy digital images, it is hard to imagine the world in which Porter worked. A long day's work perhaps yielded ten photographs – such was the effort and discipline needed. It was this hard work that led him to the creation of astonishing images, any of which cannot be created with perhaps millions of digital images.