Eliot Porter

(1901 – 1990)

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But before all else, a work of art is the creation of love. Love for the subject first and for the medium second. Love is the fundamental necessity underlying the need to create, underlying the emotion that gives it form, and from which grows the unfinished product that is presented to the world. Love is the general criterion by which the rare photograph is judged. It must contain it to be not less than the best of which the photographer is capable.

-Eliot Porter

Eliot Porter Biography

Photographer, biologist, ecologist, author, ornithologist, Eliot Porter took up photography early in life.  He received an M. D. degree in 1929, and taught biochemistry and biology at Harvard. Self-taught in photography, he perfected his technique, then exclusively black and white.  Porter was introduced to Alfred Stieglitz and in 1939 Stieglitz gave him an exhibition at his New York gallery, An American Place.  This recognition brought Porter to a decision.  This same year, Porter recollects, “I rather abruptly began to devote all my time and energies to photography, largely of nature.”  After much thought Porter left his work at Harvard to follow his dream of pursuing photography, a decision he never regretted.

At that time Porter also began to explore working in color, which he found essential for the photography of birds in their habitat and natural scene.  He mastered what is known technically as the dye-transfer process, which enabled him to make brilliant, full-color enlarged prints from color film exposed in his camera.  From the original color transparency, three inter-negatives are made on panchromatic film.  One is exposed through a red filter, the second through a green filter, and the third through a blue filter.  These separation negatives, as they are called, contain a full record, in densities ranging from black to white, of the colors in the original scene.  From the negatives, gelatin reliefs are then made which have the property of absorbing dyes in exact proportion to the densities of the negatives.  These are then dyed in the complementary colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow.  To make the final print, the matrix is pressed against the paper, in exact register.

Eliot Porter is renowned for his pioneering work in color photography.  As one of very few photographers who taught himself  the dye-transfer process, Porter had complete control over his print quality through the saturation of color and the amount of contrast in each print.  His photographs are exceptional for the use of both color and imagery in interpreting the natural world.

The dominant quality of Eliot Porter’s photographs is the result of a double concern.  As a scientist, he insists upon the accuracy and precision of the pictorial record; as an artist he constantly strives to make his pictures meaningful and lasting.  “To all the subjects I photograph, I apply the criterion that if they are worth recording at all, they are worth doing in such a way that they can stand repeated viewing, even demand it, so that one can go back again and again to find new, hidden qualities missed at first…”

Porter is one of the rare photographers of this century who mastered both black-and-white and color photography.  Although he is more known for his color work, Porter worked seriously in black-and white from 1937 through to 1961.  In 1939 he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and began to photograph and travel throughout the southwest.  His work in the east coast during the war years, 1940- 1945, put the project on hold.  In 1945, he returned to Santa Fe and lived there until his death in 1990.  Porter has exhibited widely both internationally and nationally.  His early exhibits include an exhibition of his dye-transfer images of birds at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943 and in 1959.  The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, showed “The Seasons”, a spectacular collection of color prints with quotations from the American philosopher, essayist and nature-lover, Henry David Thoreau.  The exhibition was circulated throughout the country by the Smithsonian Institution, and formed the basis of Porter’s first book, In Wildness Is The Preservation of the World.   In 1980, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held the first one man exhibit given to a living photographer, Intimate Landscapes.

Porter’s archive is housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.  Eliot Porter died in l990 and we are grateful for the vision that he left us.  His impact on the world of photography has been immense; he has taught whole generations of people a new way of seeing nature and man’s place in it.

Prints priced individually.

Selected publications:
Nature’s Chaos
Monuments of Egypt
Mexican Churches
Intimate Landscapes
Mexican Festivities
Eliot Porter, A Retrospective
Eliot Porter’s Southwest
In Wildness Is The Preservation Of The World
Glen Canyon, The Place No One Knew

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