Eliot Porter and Me, Part 2
A Black Cottonwood in Seattle’s tiny Yesler Swamp, on Lake Washington. And here’s the Eliot Porter photo that was roaming around the back of my mind at the time (a sycamore in Arizona, scanned from “Eliot Porter’s Southwest”):
Some of the responses to my first post in this series, Eliot Porter and Me, surprised me. At least three people said they liked my photo better than Porter’s. As well as being flattering, that got me thinking. I did not mean to create a head-to-head competition, only to show an important inspiration. In retrospect it’s obvious that that would happen, but was it really a fair fight? I find myself in the odd position of defending Eliot Porter.
I think his photo suffers some handicaps that mine does not. The most obvious, and probably the least important, is that while mine is a scan from the original transparency, his is a scan from a book, so it’s not as high quality. But I suspect you all took that into account, at least as much as consciously possible. Much more important, I think, is that his is early work in a style that he pretty much invented. That style has evolved and been refined in the years since, and conventions and rules of thumb have emerged.
For example, his photo was shot in full sun, and some of the highlights on the red leaves are burned out and look a bit glaring. People rarely do that any more. In fact, perfect, smooth, even light has become a bit of a cliche in nature photography, so much so that I find Porter’s willingness to shoot in direct sun refreshing. It seems more honest to me, showing how things really look while still being beautiful. And that particular photo was intended to show how the red leaves glow when back-lighted by the sun, which would be tough to do without direct sun. (The book pairs Porter photos with quotes from Thoreau. The quote for that photo is “blackberry vines here and there in sunny places look like a streak of blood on the grass.”)
And that’s what I still like about Porter. Even though his stuff is undeniably similar to the vast amount of imagery that it inspired, and that we see all the time, it still seems fresh to me, to be uniquely his, and not just another example of the current well-established conventions. I guess that’s why he’s in MOMA.