FORT WORTH, Texas --- "Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness," on view at the Amon Carter Museum December 7 through March 23, 2003, will offer the first in-depth assessment of the artistic legacy of this important photographer. One of the exhibition's major features is the fascinating tale of how Porter almost single-handedly engineered the acceptance of color landscape photography by establishing a potent new model for viewing nature.
Porter gained his first widespread acclaim before he even took up color. In 1938 the influential impresario of modern art, Alfred Stieglitz, exhibited Porter's black-and-white landscape photographs at his famous New York City gallery, An American Place. This show placed the artist in a league with such highly respected artist-photographers as Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. Unlike them, however, Porter began to explore color photography.
Porter's commitment to color originated from his commitment to photographing birds. Taking advantage of the acclaim he was gaining from his exhibition at An American Place, he took a selection of his best black-and-white bird photographs to Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of Roger Tory Peterson's successful "A Field Guide to the Birds" (1934). The publisher appreciated the beauty of Porter's prints but pointed out that identifying his bird subjects would be much easier if the portraits were in color. Porter took up the challenge, teaching himself how to make good exposures and prints of stunning color-filled realism. That success led him to start photographing other woodland subjects in color.
Porter was one of the first fine art photographs to make a sustained commitment to color. While he continued to photograph birds each spring through much of his life, he gained his most widespread acclaim through his color landscape photographs. These works, which he printed using the exacting dye transfer process, established a new model for viewing nature. Over 50 years of concerted work and after more than 100 solo gallery and museum exhibitions-including the Museum of Modern Art (1943), George Eastman House (1951, 1960), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979)-Porter played a fundamental role in helping his colleagues, major museums and the general public realize and come to appreciate the artistic potential of color landscape photographs. Even Ansel Adams, who for years refused to believe that color photography could be expressive, admitted late in his life that Porter's photographs had changed his mind.
"When Porter took up color, he became a pioneer and a renegade," said John Rohrbach, associate curator of photographs and organizer of the exhibition. "The Eastman Kodak Company had recently introduced color film, and commercial photographers were jumping to use it. But artist-photographers remained unconvinced of its expressive potential. Being used to black and white, they asserted that color was too realistic and did not allow them adequate leeway to express their feelings. Porter proved them wrong by revealing the remarkable variety and captivating beauty of the natural world's colors. But it took 20 years before he gained full acceptance for his pioneering work."
When the Sierra Club published Porter's first book, "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World" (1962), they took a great chance. Other publishers had already turned the publication down as being too expensive to produce. But Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower was so captivated by Porter's colorful studies of New England's woodlands that he created an oversized 11-by-14-inch design, demanding and achieving in the process the finest color printing available. The resulting book established a new benchmark in design and printing. It also gained spectacular sales, leading the club to launch a whole program of creating fine photographic books celebrating the beauty of environmentally threatened places. These books, six of which were based on Porter's photographs, transformed the organization from a small regionally oriented hiking club into a powerful international force, greatly broadening the audience for environmental preservation.
Over his lifetime, Porter produced 25 books and more than 7,500 exquisite color photographs. Today, "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World" has sold more than 1 million copies, and Porter's model of color landscape has become commonplace in popular magazines, wall calendars, and in the work of contemporary fine art photographers. "Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness" celebrates, through 162 original photographs and related ephemera, a master's revelations of color.
"Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness" is organized by the Amon Carter Museum. This exhibition has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, expanding our understanding of the world, and by a generous gift from Blum Consulting Engineers. Additional support has also been provided by American Airlines.
The Star-Telegram is the official prints sponsor of the Amon Carter Museum.