“Photography is a strong tool, a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment … and therefore for the fostering of a healthy human race and even very likely for its survival.” – Eliot Porter

Eliot Porter went camping with his father, an architect, who would take photos of the Canadian Rockies. On these trips, Porter began taking pictures of birds. In the introduction to his 1972 book “Birds of North America” he wrote, “I soon discovered that the most satisfactory outlet for expressing my excitement over birds was the camera”

Eliot Porter was trained in medicine earning his Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering from Harvard in 1924 and his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1929. He did research and taught at Harvard until 1938. What happened during this time is the seed that grew into a forest of environmental photographs.

While teaching at Harvard he continued to photograph birds.

Pioneer of nature in color

On Photography: Eliot Porter, 1901-1990
Eliot Porter with his Linhof Technika

In 1930, Eliot Porter purchased a 35mm Leica camera. The landscape photographs by Ansel Adams strongly influenced him. Adams encouraged Porter to use a large-format camera. After meeting Alfred Stieglitz, he acquired a bigger camera. Stieglitz exhibited his prints at An American Place gallery in 1939. This led Porter to move from medicine to become a professional photographer.

Porter earned a Guggenheim fellowship in 1941. With its backing, he began to explore color photography using Eastman Kodak’s new color film, Kodachrome initially available in 35mm rolls and later in sheets for large format cameras. This work would establish his reputation as a photographer of nature.

Porter specialized in color. He learned how to make separations from his color photographs so he could print them using the very hard-to-master dye transfer printing process. It involved making color separations — individual black and white sheets of film exposed through color filters. The developed sheets were used to make very fine screens through which colored ink was applied. The process was painstaking but the results were amazing. Dye-sub color prints have the longest archival color of any in photography. These prints today retain their original vivid colors.

Wilderness Act of 1964

By 1962, Eliot Porter had created a body of work that was published that year by the Sierra Club titled, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.” Porter’s photography was featured along with quotes by Henry David Thoreau author of “Walden’s Pond.” The work set a new style and transformed nature photography itself.

Eliot Porter’s photographs came to the attention of the United States Congress and ultimately led to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. This act is the foundation of the laws governing wilderness management to this day.

Endless battle

In an article archived on timesmachine (available to NY Times subscribers,) Bayard Webster writes about Eliot Porter’s understanding of the delicate balance of photographing nature and what humans do upon discovering new places. One of Porter’s favorite wilderness photographic locations was Glen Canyon on the Colorado River.

The place was lost with the construction of the Glen Canyon dam and power plant, Porter noted, “What we received in exchange for the loss of Glen Canyon is a featureless sheet of water, a dead basin into which all the flotsam from the surrounding land accumulates with no place to go.” He continued, saying, “It is a haven for those rich enough to have motorboats. Otherwise. it’s a dead lake that replaced a living river.”

Porter was concerned that the battle to preserve nature is never-ending. “No sooner do I photograph one of the world’s lovely spots than man contrives to pave it, dam it or develop it.”

Last word

“Every photograph that is made whether by one who considers himself a professional or by the tourist who points his snapshot camera and pushes a button, is a response to the exterior world, to something perceived outside himself by the person who operates the camera.” – Eliot Porter
Sources: New York Times obituary, New York Times, International Center for Photography, Getty, Museum of Modern Art.

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