THE NEW YORK SUN
ELIOT PORTER: CALCULATED SERENDIPITY
Photography is an art if the photographer loves it enough," Fairfield Porter wrote in response to an exhibition titled "Is Photography an Art?" held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1960. Porter was not only one of the last century's most important American painters, but one of its best writers on art. He wrote with great feeling about his brother, the photographer Eliot Porter, that he "pretends to do nothing but pay the closest possible attention to everything. He distinguishes endlessly and he dares not ignore. What does love come from if not just this scrupulous respect and close inspection?"
Eliot Porter (1901–90) spoke in the same terms when he said a true work of art "is the creation of love, love for the subject first and for the medium second." The 11 vintage dye transfer prints by Eliot Porter on display at the Hasted Hunt Gallery are evidence of his attention, respect, and love for nature (his subject) and for color photography (his medium).
The success of an exhibition of his work at Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery in 1938 encouraged Porter to abandon his career as a medical researcher at Harvard, and devote the rest of his life to photography. Mostly he shot nature, not just in his native New England (his family owned an island off Maine), but Utah, Baja California, the Galápagos Islands, Antarctica, East Africa, and Iceland. His first book, "In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World," published in 1962 by the Sierra Club, established his credentials as an important spokesman on conservation issues. For 50 years he took pictures of quiet, but insistent, beauty.
The first pleasure one experiences on encountering the 11 images at Hasted Hunt is that they are not the enormous format digital C-prints contemporary technology assaults us with: Their modesty is itself appealing. The dye transfer process only allows contact prints, so all the pictures are about 10 1/2 inches by 8 1/2 inches. Because the process is both time and labor intense, it was never very popular, and is now almost never used, but dye transfer prints are about as permanent as color prints can be, and the colors are exquisite. Fairfield writing in 1960 about an exhibition of his brother's work at the Baltimore Museum said, "His range of colors contributes to their namelessness. … The colors do not correspond to words you know, they are themselves, a language that is not spoken."
"Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee" (1967) characteristically avoids a landscape of peaks and distant ridges to concentrate on a segment of forest. It is fall: We look down from a higher elevation on a tree in the foreground that is red (if we must put a simple-minded name to the color), one that is yellow behind it, and surrounding trees progressively being leeched of their green as the cold weather advances. There is nothing spectacular about the image except the meticulous care with which it is realized. The detail establishes the reality of this particular part of the forest, but the care with which the elements are arranged suggests the painting of an Abstract Expressionist.
The same characterization applies to "Glen Canyon Series (Blue Water Marks)" (1961). This is a picture of a rock formation, and more abstract because there is no indication of scale. The bottom half of the picture is a rough surfaced gray. What might be frozen water spills from the upper part of the picture in blue and white cascades. Three quarters of the way up is a narrow horizontal patch of green, some sort of vegetation, and above it a broader band of something yellow and brown. Again there is a tension between the evidence of reality imposed by the fine detail and the abstract fantasy of the design.
Eliot Porter wrote that his photographs "emphasized the random chaos of the natural world." But, he continued, "Nature's apparent disorder can be reduced to aesthetically stimulating fragments." And further, that, "Only in fragments of the whole is nature's order apparent." He never really abandoned his career in scientific research: The thin, bright red twigs in "Red Osier, Massachusetts" (1957) reach up sinuously with the abandon of lines of dripped paint in a Jackson Pollock, but Porter's presentation of them is empirical.That they are set against a background of stalks of golden grass, the dramatic branches of a white birch tree, and a distant scrim of purple and gray is calculated serendipity.
"Columbine Leaves, Maine" (1974) is a choice example of Porter's ability to combine technical sophistication and clarity of vision with a simple subject to produce a complex picture. It's flowers, it's flowers and rocks, it's flowers and rocks and the dark crevices between the rocks; it's greens and greens and greens; and, of course, reds and purples and yellows. And it's lines and shapes and suggestions of mass. Every part of the image is integral to the whole. Sarah Hasted, one of the principals in the gallery, apprenticed to Porter when she was a graduate school art student and she witnessed the care with which he examined the corners of the picture frame: He was determined nothing superfluous would be included, not even at the edges.
In a talk on "Technology and Artistic Perception" that he delivered at Yale in 1955, Fairfield Porter said, "Photography is a possible artistic medium because it puts one in contact with a formality too large to be contained by the human mind." Certainly he was thinking of his brother's work.The statement is true of "Columbine Leaves, Maine," and it is true of "Eroded Rocks" (1953), "Blackberries, Maine" (1954), "Rhodora, Spring" (1953), and the other dye transfer prints at Hasted Hunt. "Rock Stain" (1952) looks, at first glance, like black graffiti on buffcolored stone, but nature is more meaningful than urban vandalism.We focus on it with a mindset that loops back and forth between a narrow scientism and a mysticism that expands to fill the cosmos.