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In Photography Is the Preservation of the World

Eliot Porter celebrated ordinary rocks, fallen leaves, and the lush complexity of life.

By Rebecca Solnit

When "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World": Selections and Photographs by Eliot Porter appeared in November of 1962, nothing like it had been seen before. The book combined childhood wonder, modernist art, breakthrough color-photography technology, scientific acumen, and political awareness—a convergence that Porter and his editor, Sierra Club executive director David Brower, would refine through subsequent books and years.

In Wildness was seen as a defense of wilderness, yet most of the phenomena it portrays might readily be observed near civilization.

Unlike his contemporary Ansel Adams, whose work located itself through landmarks, Porter’s did so through representative specimens—the sandstone of the Southwest, the warblers of the Midwest, the maple leaves of New England. With Adams’s monumental scenes, viewers felt they were remote from civilization; with Porter they could be a few feet from it. The creatures are small—caterpillars, moths, songbirds; the bodies of water are brooks, not rivers; the trees are maples, not bristlecones. In 1962, simply depicting the quiet splendors of the natural world was a powerful argument, in part because it had never been made as Porter made it. As one reviewer later wrote, "A kind of revolution was under way, for with the publication of this supremely well-crafted book, conservation ceased to be a boring chapter on agriculture in fifth-grade textbooks, or the province of such as birdwatchers."

Ironically (or perhaps fittingly), Porter himself started out as a birdwatcher, making ornithological photographs in the scientific-aesthetic tradition of artist John James Audubon. From this modest initial definition of nature as birds and details of the New England landscape, Porter’s photography grew into a global picture. His work evolved as the environmental movement did, from protecting particular species and places to rethinking the human place in the world, a world reimagined as an entity of interconnected natural systems rather than one of discrete objects. In his densely layered pictures, Porter comes as close as any artist has to portraying ecology.

As his brother, the painter and critic Fairfield Porter, wrote of Porter’s color photographs: "There is no subject and background, every corner is alive." Porter’s most distinctive compositions are the close-ups. Unlike landscape photography, which generally depicts an empty center of open space, waiting to be inhabited, in Porter’s work nature itself fills that center, whether with leaves, stones, creatures, or clouds. This is nature photography, a wholly new genre Porter founded, with wild stuff in its own place for its own sake. Nature, not man, is the true inhabitant of Porter’s places.

"As a child," Porter wrote, "all living things were a source of delight to me . . . I still remember clearly some of the small things—objects of nature—I found outdoors. Tiny potato-like tubers that I dug out of the ground in the woods behind the house where I lived, orange and black spiders sitting on silken ladders in their webs, sticky hickory buds in the spring, and yellow filamentous witch hazel flowers blooming improbably in November are a few that I recall. I did not think of them as beautiful,

I am sure, or as wondrous phenomena of nature, although this second reaction would come closest to the effect they produced on me. As children do, I took it all for granted, but I believe it is not an exaggeration to say, judging from the feeling of satisfaction they gave me when I rediscovered them each year, that I loved them." Like William Wordsworth and many other nature writers, artists, and environmentalists, Porter retained this almost visionary childhood sense of awe and transmuted it into something that could be communicated in the adult world.

Trained as a doctor and biomedical researcher, Porter moved from science to aesthetics as though it were the most natural transition in the world, and for him it apparently was. This mix made him something of a maverick and a misfit in photography circles—even the landscapists did not ground their work in science as Porter did. As a photographer, he engaged with evidence of natural processes, biodiversity, the meeting of multiple systems, with growth, decay, and entropy. Rose Petals on Beach, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, for example, seems at first about the visual pleasures of pink petals and slate-blue mussel shells, but it also contains the story of the tide that washed the shells ashore and the wind that blew the petals onto the beach, of the mortality of flowers and mollusks, of the overlapping of all these forces to make this small window into a large world. Hepaticas, Near Sheffield, Massachusetts depicts the flowers named in the title, but it is the contrast of the three delicate lilac-colored blooms that have pushed up through drab fallen leaves that makes the photograph work both aesthetically and ecologically—spring seems to be surging up amid the remains of fall, generation amid decay, the cycle of the year.

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