Photographer Porter Pioneered His Hues In the Wilderness

The American photographer Eliot Porter (1901-1990), whose work is the subject of a large retrospective exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Me., had a lucky life. Born to a family of what has been described as “modest wealth” that also had a keen interest in the arts-his father, James Porter, was an architect and the painter Fairfield Porter was his younger brother-Eliot Porter enjoyed a career that spanned more than half a century.

He didn’t set out to become an artist; science was his first calling. When Porter entered Harvard in 1920, it was to study chemical engineering. He then switched to Harvard Medical School, took time off for the further study of biochemistry at Cambridge University in England, and in 1929 returned to the U.S. to receive his M.D. from Harvard, where he taught biochemistry and biophysics. He never practiced as a physician, however.

Instead, at the age of 29, Porter bought a Leica and took up photography, which had been one of his teenage passions. Nature-especially bird life-had been another, and to these combined interests Porter now brought not only a scientist’s comprehension and a traveler’s curiosity, but also what turned out to be a first-rate aesthetic sensibility. This was recognized early on by no less an eminence than Alfred Stieglitz, who in 1938 gave Porter a solo exhibition of his black-and-white photographs at An American Place in New York. A year later, following the death of his father, Porter resigned from teaching to pursue a full-time career as a photographic artist. It was then that he produced his first color photographs of birds, and color photography was to be the medium of his greatest work.

Color was then a highly controversial issue in photography. Elders like Stieglitz and Ansel Adams openly deplored its use, and a good many of their devoted followers regarded color as a fatal corruption of the medium. (Alas, some still do.) Porter, already highly accomplished as a black-and-white photographer, believed otherwise. One of the wall texts in the current exhibition, Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness , informs us that “Many of Porter’s fellow artists argued that color left little room for self-expression. Porter strongly disagreed, retorting that dye transfer printing, by requiring one to split and then recombine an image’s primary colors, offered extensive freedom to make fine adjustments of hue, saturation, and contrast.”

No doubt Porter’s determined use of color initially owed much to his ambition to produce chromatically faithful portraits of his bird subjects-a project in which he triumphantly succeeded on a scale unmatched by his contemporaries. But something else was clearly involved, too: Porter had artistic ambitions for his color photography that reached beyond the goal of chromatic accuracy and into the realm of pictorial improvisation and invention. As we are reminded in the wall text already cited, “While he made every effort to record the world exactly in his bird photographs, Porter took greater liberties with his landscapes.” Indeed, he often made quite different prints from the same color transparency, altering nature in the interests of aesthetic expression.

If he were ever in need of justifying such liberties, arguments could easily be found in nature as well as art. Every landscape we encounter is altered by shifting light and changing weather conditions, and comparable inventive changes have been a staple of landscape painting throughout history. This particular artistic freedom, denied to Porter in his bird subjects, he eagerly exploited in his landscape pictures.

Great as Porter was as a photographer of birds, landscape and primitive wilderness, there were also periods in his career when he was great as a photographer of the monuments of old civilizations. His subjects included the interior of the Church of Matatlan, in Oaxaca, Mexico, with its brilliantly colored santo of Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey with a palm-leaf cross; the Theater of Dionysus in Athens; the entrance to the Confucius family cemetery in Shandong, China; and the Temple of Luxor in Egypt. Every one of those photos is a masterpiece.

Two other great series in this exhibition are Porter’s pictures of Antarctica and Iceland, of which my own favorites are the panoramic winter view of Chinstrap penguins on King Edward Island in the Antarctic Peninsula, from 1975; and a summer view of rocks and flowers in Iceland, from 1972. In these and certain other pictures in this show, Porter seems to have been much influenced by the formal innovations of abstract painting-an influence obliquely acknowledged by Porter himself when he wrote: “We found the lichens that had brought us to Iceland in the first place, decorating the older rocks everywhere in bright-colored geometric plaques.”

In all of Porter’s landscape color compositions, there’s an acute attention paid to pattern, texture, space, design and framing that clearly reflects a keen understanding of the aesthetics of abstraction. My guess is that he had learned something from his brother Fairfield’s essay, “Abstract Expressionism and Landscape,” written in the early 1960′s. And it wouldn’t surprise me if, in turn, painters had something to learn from Eliot Porter’s handling, in his photographs, of color and composition.

Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness , which was organized by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., remains on view at the Portland Museum of Art through March 21.