Background: Color Birds
Immediately after taking up photography full time in 1939, Porter sought to publish a book of his black-and-white bird photographs. Houghton Mifflin Editor-in-Chief Paul Brooks heralded Porter's prints but rejected the idea of publishing them because black and white prevented one from seeing subtle distinctions in the color and shading of bird feathers. Instantly, Porter took up the challenge. By 1940 he had taught himself how to photograph birds with an exceedingly slow color film (ASA 4) and how to print his images using the complex wash-off relief process. This predecessor of Kodak's dye transfer process, which the artist took up in 1946, delivered lush, bright colors and the flexibility of control that would allow Porter to render subtle distinctions in the hues of bird feathers. The artist gained such immediate proficiency with these new materials that in 1941 he was awarded with a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph as many different American bird species as possible, in both black and white and color. Unfortunately, printing a book of Porter's color bird photographs proved to be financially unfeasible, at least initially. Although ornithologists' regularly used his photographs to illustrate their articles and books, only in 1972, long after gaining success with his non-bird photographs, would Porter publish his first avian book, Birds of North America.

Porter photographed birds in color most spring seasons throughout much of his career, placing special emphasis on song birds and Eastern shore birds. While he tried to document as many species as possible, he often rephotographed species in search of ever better compositions. The collection holds 868 dye transfer prints, encompassing 158 species of birds found in the United States. Wood warblers are a collection highlight. These were Porter's favorite bird family. He was able to photograph forty-two of fifty species.

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