Eliot Porter and Me
I used to want to be Eliot Porter.
Heck, I’m still jealous of his life: supported by a family trust, world traveler, creator of some of the first Sierra Club “exhibit-format” (i.e. coffee-table) books, shown by Alfred Stieglitz and the Museum of Modern Art. He worked in large format and the incredibly demanding (and expensive) dye-transfer color printing process and produced an enormous body of excellent work. I have eleven of his books. As far as I can tell, he pretty much single-handedly invented the style of “quiet” color nature photography so popular in the Sierra Club Engagement Calendar and its many knock-offs. He was fond of detail and complexity and rarely shot the big, dramatic views that we associate with Ansel Adams.
My photographic interests have since broadened, and when I recently reviewed my posts on this blog I was surprised at how few are classic nature photos. Still, in my archives are some I think of as my Porter shots, and I’d like to share a few of them in coming posts. The top photo here is mine, a scan of a 4×5 transparency I made long ago in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. The bottom photo is Porter’s, from his first Sierra Club book “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.” (I’m hoping I won’t get in trouble for posting this small scan from an old book.)
I quite like mine, and I did not set out to slavishly imitate Porter’s. I just happened upon these plants when looking for things to photograph. Once I saw them, though, I remembered Porter’s composition and consciously re-used it. For a while I was unhappy with my version: I thought I hadn’t arranged the closest plants as well as he had. I went back and looked up his photo (I hadn’t remembered it very well). Now I’m not so sure.
This all raises some unanswerable questions: how much is my vision and style derived from Porter’s? Was my early aesthetic sense tabula rasa, unformed, waiting to be molded until I ran across my parents’ copy of “In Wildness”? Or do I have an innate fondness for this sort of thing, and that was why I latched onto Porter and not some other photographer? No doubt (the cheap, easy, predictable answer) it’s some of both.