Eliot Porter's Color Photographs Played Key Role in Developing the Environmental Movement

Release date: 
October 7, 2002

FORT WORTH, Texas --- Eliot Porter (1901--1990) was not only a pioneer of color photography, he also showed how art could contribute to building and informing America's environmental movement. "Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness," on view at the Amon Carter Museum December 7 through March 23, 2003, will present 162 original photographic prints and related ephemera that chronicle the artist's 50-year career. The exhibition tells the story of how Porter came to broad public recognition, how he successfully overcame his colleagues' prejudices against color, and how he used his artistically conceived photographs to draw public attention to the distinctive and endangered beauty of natural environments across the earth.

Porter's photography originated from his love of the outdoors. When given a camera as a boy, he immediately challenged himself to photograph birds, starting what would become a lifelong preoccupation. Photographing birds led him to become one of the first artist-photographers to take up color. In 1939, 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 his prints, but pointed out that identifying his bird subjects would be much easier if the portraits were in color. Porter taught himself how to make bird portraits of such vivid and colorful beauty that he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and exhibitions at two of New York's most important venues, The Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History. He soon began photographing other woodland subjects in color, too.

Porter continued to photograph birds each spring through much of his life, but he gained most of his acclaim through the color landscape photographs that he created through the rest of each year. These works, which he printed using the exacting dye transfer process, established a new model for viewing nature.

Porter's first book "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World" (1962), presented a seasonal celebration of New England's woodlands, meticulously pairing his quiet photographs with excerpts from the writings of the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Completed only months after Rachel Carson's groundbreaking indictment of pesticides, "Silent Spring" (1962), the book seemed to illustrate the world being lost to indiscriminate spraying of DDT. Published by the Sierra Club, its 11-by-14-inch size and Kromekote paper established award-winning benchmarks in design and printing. These factors together induced spectacular sales, leading Porter and Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower to collaborate on five more books interweaving Porter's artistic photographs with similarly resonant texts to argue for preserving natural environments. These books, covering sites from the Glen Canyon to the Galápagos, transformed the club from a small regionally oriented hiking club into a powerful international force. They also played an instrumental role in building today's broad-based environmental movement. On that momentum, Porter took up projects with other publishers, compiling his richly hued photographs into environmentally and historically cognizant portraits of places ranging from East Africa and Antarctica to China.

By the time of his death in 1990, Porter had produced more than 7,500 masterful dye transfer color photographic prints of sites around the world and 25 books celebrating the colorful beauty of these locales. 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 even in the work of contemporary fine art photographers. Environmentalist and author Rebecca Solnit explains: "His photographs have come to embody what we look for and value in the natural world, what the public often tries to photograph, and what a whole genre of photography imitates. The work is so compelling that it eventually becomes how we see and imagine, rather than what we look at. Porter's pictures of nature look, so to speak, 'natural' now. We now live in a world Porter helped invent."

"Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness," drawn from the Amon Carter's Museum's extensive Eliot Porter collection, tells the story of this eloquent and effective blending of art, science, and environmentalism. The exhibition is accompanied by a 150-page exhibition catalogue of the same name, produced by the Carter in collaboration with the renowned photography book publisher Aperture. The 11-by-14-inch catalogue, offered in both hard and softcover, contains 90 plates, 31 illustrations and an extensive chronology. The book presents three groundbreaking essays: the first by Dr. John Rohrbach, project director and the Carter's associate curator of photographs, tells the tale of Porter's groundbreaking achievements in color photography; the second, by Rebecca Solnit, discusses how Porter's imagery has come to set the model of contemporary nature photography; and the third by Porter's son Jonathan, a scholar of Chinese history at the University of New Mexico, provides a loving memoir of his father.

"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 print sponsor of the Amon Carter Museum.