Sierra Magazine

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.

In Wildness showed the forest still enchanted, outside of historical time and within the cyclical time of the seasons. Only one image, of a mud swallow’s nest built against raw planks, betrays traces of human presence at all, and that presence is slight and benign. In many ways a hopeful book, In Wildness was not only a document, but a promise: that unspoiled nature still existed, and represented what the future could hold. Despite its lyrical celebration of the timeless and nonhuman, Porter’s first book was widely recognized as a political one. Politics is ultimately about what we value and fear, and environmentalism is about what is worth protecting, as well as what threatens it. In Wildness spoke directly of these things—that photographs of blackberries, birds, and streams can be politically and philosophically persuasive because a love of nature can be inculcated through beauty, and that such love can lead to political action.

"Photography is a strong tool," Porter once wrote, "a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment . . . and therefore for the fostering of a healthy human race and even very likely for its survival." In David Brower and the Sierra Club, Porter met a man and an organization that had long put the aesthetic to political use in a way no other environmental group had. Porter served two terms on the organization’s board of directors, and the books he published with Brower helped make the Sierra Club a visible force nationwide. In his next book, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, Porter revealed a landscape that had been at least as pristine as those of In Wildness, but which by the time of publication was irrevocably lost: the labyrinthine gorges drowned by Glen Canyon Dam. The book was an argument for preventing further dams in the Colorado River canyons. Porter portrayed Glen Canyon as a gallery of stone walls in reds, browns, and grays and of gravel-and-mud floors through which water flowed, occasionally interspersed with images of foliage and, rarely, the sky. It was much more radical than In Wildness—formally, in its compositions; politically, in the directness of its advocacy; and conceptually, in its depiction of an imminent catastrophe that would have been unimaginable a century before. Beautiful images, particularly photographs, and most particularly landscape photographs, are usually invitations of a sort, but this one was the opposite: a survey of what could no longer be encountered, a portrait of the condemned before the execution. The beauty of the pictures was inflected by information from outside the frame; all this was being drowned.

Even in rendering such an extraordinary place and crucial moment, Porter’s close-up scale emphasized the ordinary. Balanced Rock is a landmark, an outstanding and unusual feature of the landscape. But Porter’s Near Balanced Rock Canyon shows grayish river-rounded rocks on a yellow bedrock surface—a quotidian scene near the unseen, exceptional one. Of course, this image was made to be viewed in the context of other, more spectacular images of Glen Canyon, and this serial approach changes the expectations for each photograph: They need not all be prima ballerinas, each straining for the sensational, but together form a corps de ballet. Near Balanced Rock Canyon also suggests that ordinary rocks are important enough, that we can love a place for its blackberries or its stream ripples, not just for its peaks and waterfalls.

"Much is missed if we have eyes only for the bright colors," Porter wrote. "Nature should be viewed without distinction. . . . She makes no choice herself; everything that happens has equal significance. Nothing can be dispensed with. This is a common mistake that many people make: They think that half of nature can be destroyed—the uncomfortable half—while still retaining the acceptable and the pleasing side." In turning this credo into art, Porter transformed what we see and what we pay attention to. His photographs have come to embody what we look for and value in the natural world, what the public often tries to photograph, and what a whole genre of photography imitates. The work is so compelling that it eventually becomes how we see and imagine, rather than what we look at. Porter’s pictures of nature look, so to speak, "natural" now. We live in a world Porter helped invent.

This article was adapted from the publication The Color of Wildness, ©2001 by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, courtesy of Aperture Foundation Inc., 2001, a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to promoting photography. For more information about the book, call (800) 929-2323 or visit A traveling exhibition by the same title will open at the Carter in December 2002, then move to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (May 3 to July 27, 2003), the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida (September 6 to November 23, 2003), and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine (January 22 to April 4, 2004).

This is the second in a series of three Sierra articles about nature photography. "Celebrating 100 Years of Ansel Adams" appeared in our January/February issue. We’ll explore new directions in landscape photography in early 2003.

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