In an attempt to expand 291’s scope beyond reviews, interviews, and links dealing with contemporary visual culture, I’m instituting the blog’s first monthly feature: Nothing New. Nothing New will discuss photography and other visual artifacts that I feel have not been given the recognition they deserve. That may include underappreciated portions of the body of work of a major photographer, the entire body of work of a relatively unknown photographer, or particular kinds of visual media that–for whatever reason–haven’t gotten their dues.
Do a Google image search for “Eliot Porter” and you’ll be rewarded with page after page of boring, restaurant-wall-worthy photographs of nature: leaves and grass growing over an old log, water blurring as it trickles in little cascades through a canyon, or a tree bursting into the first orange of autumn. These are all “nice” images, and Porter–thanks to his early adoption of color film–was one of the first to capture these sorts of pictures and make them available to a widespread audience. Porter’s first book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, was published by the Sierra Club in 1962; it was such a major success that it helped catapult both Porter and the club into the international limelight.
Still, from a fine art perspective, Porter’s nature work hasn’t aged well. It’s become a victim of the aesthetic it helped create, which is now so thoughtlessly reproduced that it’s hard to see Porter’s work as anything but a symbol of “quietly tasteful nature photography,” the sort of muted, inoffensive “art” that puts the finishing touch on many a 21st-century waiting room. One sizable chunk of Porter’s photography manages to escape this pitfall, however: his color photography of birds. Porter was the father of all bird photography, inventing the techniques that allowed him to photograph birds at an intimate range with a clunky 4×5 camera. In his book Birds of North America: A Personal Selection, he intersperses jaw-dropping color plates of birds with essays that describe the extraordinary lengths he went to in order to get his pictures. Like many preservationists and naturalists before him, Porter tackled his quarry with a tenacity and inventiveness that seems like disregard to anyone sensitive to the tenets of modern-day conservation movements. He saws off nest-bearing limbs and clamps them into new locations to bring them within range of his camera; builds enormous metal scaffolding and shines bright lights on tiny chicks; and pokes his fingers into nests to see what will come flying out.
But Porter’s writing also reveals that, however his actions might look, he was deeply dedicated to the well-being of his subjects, often using the same ingenuity that he employed to find birds in his attempts to save them from any disturbance or danger. He patches up nests using Kotex when he fears he may have damaged them, and he thinks nothing of taking cold chicks temporarily abandoned by their fearful parents into his own home, sheltering them in a handkerchief and warming them in his hands until their metabolism speeds up enough that their parents can feed them again. In the process, he made some 8,000 negatives and transparencies, producing beautiful images of birds brooding, feeding, and on the wing. By today’s standards, his accomplishment is remarkable; considering that he was doing his major bird work between the ’40s and the ’70s, it’s nearly unimaginable. His bird photography was highly prized in his own time–he won a Guggenheim to pursue color bird work in 1941, and MoMA staged an exhibition of his birds in 1943–which makes it all the more bizarre that this, his best body of work, has fallen out of public favor recently. From a purely technical perspective, Porter’s images awe: his prints are all dye transfer, which meant a lot of work for the printer but equal reward in the tonal richness and density of his prints. I first saw them in person at the Getty Museum in 2006, where they were on loan from the Amon Carter Museum. They’re truly unforgettable. Porter left his archives to the Carter museum when he died in 1990, and they maintain a wonderful online archive of his work here.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Porter’s bird work is out of print. The only Porter title readily available is Aperture’s The Color of Wildness, but it’s worthwhile to seek out an original or a reprint (I have the 1992 Arrowwood Press edition) of his Birds of North America: A Personal Selection if you want proof that straightforward animal photography, without ever resorting to cheap visual puns or anthropomorphism, can still attain the highest levels of aesthetic achievement.
All images © The Amon Carter Museum.