Eliot Porter adopted colour film at a time when most photographers ridiculed the format, while his delicate nature photos and hugely successful photo books helped guide public interest and respect for the environment. Discover how he developed a style and ethos that still resonates within the conservation movement today.
Words by Hudson Brown
Photography by Eliot Porter
Eliot Porter developed his eye for nature at an early age. Born in 1901, his mother and father – a social campaigner and a biologist – fostered his evident appreciation for the environment. From the age of 10, Porter carried a bulky Brownie camera around the family’s Illinois farm where he gazed up at the native birdlife inhabiting the trees. Meanwhile, the Porters also owned Great Spruce Head Island – a private wooded wonderland off the coast of Maine that later inspired much of Eliot’s imagery.
Although Porter’s interest in photography never entirely went away, his strong scientific mind led him to pursue chemical engineering and medicine at Harvard University, where he stayed on for a decade as a bacteriologist and teacher. In his spare time, Porter began taking nature photography more seriously, upgrading from his Brownie to a Leica and then a large-format Linhof camera. As he leaned increasingly into his creative interests, the Porter family’s affluent status placed Eliot in the social circles of legendary photographers like Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz. Alongside Fairfield Porter – the celebrated abstract expressionist and Eliot’s younger brother – these renowned figures encouraged him to pursue the craft.
Stieglitz, in particular, took a special interest in Porter’s budding photographic career. In 1938, he offered to host Porter’s first exhibition at his renowned gallery, An American Place. Here, Eliot presented a series of black-and-white landscapes and bolstered his artistic credentials, leading to his resignation from Harvard and commitment to photography.
“Sometimes you can tell a large story with a tiny subject.”
A Colour Photography Pioneer
Although colour film was widely available by the time Porter dived into the creative world, almost every artist of the era still considered black-and-white to be the only format for serious photographers. This notion was backed up by some practical reasons like unreliable processing methods and financial hurdles. But it was also because most artistic photographers stubbornly believed colour simply couldn’t convey the same emotive qualities as its counterpart.
“Porter’s outlook matured as he sought out the alluring patterns and minutiae that make up our world.”
Porter was one of the earliest in the field to embrace colour film, pioneering its use 20 years before it was accepted by mainstream photographers. This decision came after he took a selection of black-and-white photographs of native birds to a publisher who quickly observed people might have trouble identifying the species in his monochromatic images. Rather than baulking at the suggestion, Porter decided to teach himself the labour-intensive process behind dye-transfer prints and separation negatives to produce his vibrant colour prints.
Across his travels both domestically and overseas to places like Iceland, China and the Galapágos Islands, this printing process became the calling card of Porter’s work. Gaining incredible control over the development of his images, Porter was able to spotlight the remarkable details that embodied the special nature of his subjects. He would frequently intensify blues, greens and reds while enriching the texture of trees, rocks and flowing streams to give his images a painterly aesthetic. Over the years, Porter’s outlook matured as he sought out the alluring patterns and minutiae that make up our world – an approach that Porter later coined as the ‘intimate landscape’.
Connecting the Public and Conservation
Eliot Porter was undoubtedly a central figure in the rise of colour photography, but his work within the conservation space was equally influential. By the time of his death in 1990, Porter had produced 25 photo books focused on an array of striking but often fragile locations. His first and most successful was In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, a breathtaking photographic interpretation of Henry David Thoreau’s 19th-century poems. Across 72 elegantly composed images of the New England countryside, it sold over a million copies and exposed people everywhere to his work and the idea that untamed nature must be protected at all costs. As Porter said in 1969: “Sometimes you can tell a large story with a tiny subject… My pictures are a form of editorial comment – they show the way I feel.”
Porter was often transparent about his political intentions, with his second book even more direct in its advocacy. The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado presented the true cost of environmental ambivalence, as Porter captured the stunning Glen Canyon before it was deliberately flooded in 1963. With an increasingly abstract gaze, Porter showcased the canyon’s colours, textures and reflections developed over millions of years, while rippling pools and delicate sandstone patterns heightened a loss that many considered impossible to rationalise.
“Photography is a strong tool, a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defence of the environment.”
By the time The Place No One Knew was printed, Glen Canyon had already been flooded. With Porter’s images taking on the context of a vital historical document, the impact of his work played a major role in growing the Sierra Club, now one of America’s most influential conservation groups. Having published both of Porter’s hugely successful early works, alongside four later photo books, the Sierra Club burst onto the national scene where it continues to fight pivotal environmental battles. With Porter eventually serving on the organisations’ board of directors, his legacy is not only impressive in photographic terms, but also through his steadfast commitment to safeguard nature.
As Porter wrote for In Wildness: “Photography is a strong tool, a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defence of the environment…and therefore, for the fostering of a healthy human race, and even very likely for its survival.”
How to Capture Nature’s Beauty Like Eliot Porter
Eliot Porter truly mastered the art of nature photography. After you’ve checked out some of his most impressive photo books, look over these tips and try capturing the environment with the same vigour and respect.
FIND A STORY TO TELL
When Porter captured the world around him, he often wanted to highlight elements the average person would overlook. He would look for specific plants, colours or textures that symbolised something far greater about the landscape he was shooting. By thinking carefully about the purpose of your images, you can point your viewer’s gaze towards a specific feature and start developing an emotive narrative.
“There is no subject and background – every corner is alive.”
FOCUS ON ABSTRACT TEXTURES
Although Porter was a pioneer of colour photography, he also had an exceptional eye for hidden textures that articulated something deeper about a setting. From bright spots of lichen to mineral stains seeping from a rockface, don’t be afraid to get close and reveal the expressive features that make it obvious why nature is something to appreciate.
ISOLATE THE INTIMATE DETAILS
To create your own intimate landscape, choose a small part of the scenery and focus on its most standout features. Porter had a masterful ability to frame his subject, finding the ideal balance between flailing tree branches or different flora springing from the forest floor. Look for shapes, lines and patterns that say something more about a location.
By forming projects around increasingly fine details, the audience gains a truly in-depth look at a location compared to the singular perspective of a wide landscape. As Fairfield Porter said of his brother’s work: “There is no subject and background – every corner is alive.”
LET COLOURS DO THE TALKING
Black-and-white images certainly have a time and place, but countless photographers over the years have proven just how emotive colour can be when paired with the right subject. Once you’ve found a vibrant scene, highlight its most delicate and expressive tones, while seeking out complementary combinations that produce a dynamic image.
ENGAGE WITH NATURE RESPECTFULLY
Thanks to photographers like Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams, most people have an appreciation for the natural world. However, it’s important to remain mindful when trekking through nature to shoot some incredible scenes. Remember to stick to existing paths and give priority to the landscape whenever you’re unsure about access. This way, the environment can be enjoyed by others who love it just as much as you.
Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.