Monday, April 21, 2014

Eliot Porter & Henry David Thoreau: "portraying ecology"

Eliot Porter's exquisite In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World has sold more than 1 million copies. This classic tome combines the words of Henry David Thoreau with large-format color photographs by Porter of New England woods and streams, taken over a ten-year period. In them, Porter (19011990) is patently at one with Thoreau's philosophy: "Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain." (This slideshow from the current publisher offers a sampling of the photos—although they're tiny compared to the real thing!)
The book was first published by the Sierra Club, and Porter was elected to its board of directors in 1965, serving until 1971. In 1970, Porter wrote, "It has been said that wildness is a luxury, a commodity that man will be forced to dispense with as his occupancy of the earth approaches saturation. If this happens, he is finished. Wilderness must be preserved; it is a spiritual necessity."
Aspens by Lake, Pike National Forest, Colorado, September 14, 1959
In a profile in Sierra Magazine, Rebecca Solnit says many pertinent and perspicacious things about Porter's photography.
When "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World"... appeared in November of 1962, nothing like it had been seen before. The book combined childhood wonder, modernist art, breakthrough color-photography technology, scientific acumen, and political awareness—a convergence that Porter and his editor, Sierra Club executive director David Brower, would refine through subsequent books and years.... Unlike his contemporary Ansel Adams, whose work located itself through landmarks, Porter’s did so through representative specimens—the sandstone of the Southwest, the warblers of the Midwest, the maple leaves of New England. With Adams’s monumental scenes, viewers felt they were remote from civilization; with Porter they could be a few feet from it. The creatures are small—caterpillars, moths, songbirds; the bodies of water are brooks, not rivers; the trees are maples, not bristlecones. In 1962, simply depicting the quiet splendors of the natural world was a powerful argument, in part because it had never been made as Porter made it. As one reviewer later wrote, "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."
Eastern Flicker (Colaptes auratus auratus), Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, July 22, 1968. © 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist. Porter's goal was to "raise bird photography above the level of reportage, to transform it into an art," and he developed the first stop-action system for capturing them. He used a tripod-mounted camera that held 4-x-5-inch sheets of film and had two powerful strobe lamps, synchronized to the shutter. With a high-speed shutter and the smallest lens aperture, he could stop the movement of small, swift birds and capture them in sharp focus.
Ironically (or perhaps fittingly), Porter himself started out as a birdwatcher, making ornithological photographs in the scientific-aesthetic tradition of artist John James Audubon. From this modest initial definition of nature as birds and details of the New England landscape, Porter’s photography grew into a global picture. His work evolved as the environmental movement did, from protecting particular species and places to rethinking the human place in the world, a world reimagined as an entity of interconnected natural systems rather than one of discrete objects. In his densely layered pictures, Porter comes as close as any artist has to portraying ecology.
As his brother, the painter and critic Fairfield Porter, wrote of Porter’s color photographs: "There is no subject and background, every corner is alive." Porter’s most distinctive compositions are the close-ups. Unlike landscape photography, which generally depicts an empty center of open space, waiting to be inhabited, in Porter’s work nature itself fills that center, whether with leaves, stones, creatures, or clouds. This is nature photography, a wholly new genre Porter founded, with wild stuff in its own place for its own sake. Nature, not man, is the true inhabitant of Porter’s places.
November 8, 1858, from In Wildness... "As a child," Porter wrote, "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."
In his work on preserving "kettle lakes," geologist Robert Thorson (left) has been building on the legacy of Porter and Thoreau. Remnants of the Ice Age, kettle lakes are scattered along the path of retreating glaciers from Maine to Montana. Thoreau's Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts (seen below), is a classic New England kettle lake. You can find out all about kettle lakes in your region by perusing his book Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America's Kettle Lakes and Ponds; there's more information on his website as well.
Views of kettle lakes in New Hampshire


  1. I've always been fascinated with kettle lakes. Seeing photographs from an aerial view of some of the the various kettle lakes around the world, they always remind me of little water fingerprints.

  2. I had heard about Porter, but never knew the extent of his importance towards the conservation movement. Also, in an age where nature photography is so abundant, it is sometimes hard to recognize greatness among them. To know that he revolutionized the way we photograph birds is also very interesting! Thank you for a very informative post, JP!

    1. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The large-scale reproductions of his photographs give you a "you are there" feeling, and the coupling with the Thoreau quotes is exquisite.

  3. It is amazing what a simple little phone camera can do. Love the shots, especially the last one..!