Eliot Porter


Eliot Porter was born in 1901 and died in 1990. Throughout his life he wasn’t very interested in photography until after he started teaching medicine at Harvard. He was a teacher before he was influenced by Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz after having one of Eliot’s photos in a show. He became the best known documenter of nature and creatures. His specialty was birds because he liked bird watching when he was younger.


^Video on Eliot Porter and his work

"Cottonwood" February 9, 2009


Not only was Glen Canyon drowned, the interior of the Grand Canyon was neutered.  Seasonal floods no longer scoured its beaches, deposited life-giving nutrients in sediments; instead the absence of flooding allowed invasive species such as tamarisk to thrive, and extirpated at least four species of fish, with a fifth, the Humpback Chubb in grave danger. All the muskrats and river otters in the Grand Canyon died. At least eighty percent of the sediment that would normally deposit in the Canyon piles up behind the dam.  (It is that sediment that will eventually allow the river to overwhelm the Damn Dam.) The water that is released from the dam comes from the bottom of Lake Foul, er — Lake Powell; water which is cold.  Non-native fish thrive in the colder downstream water but the natives do not.


Lichens on River Stones, Iceland, 1972

© 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist

The year after his exhibition at Stieglitz’s gallery, Porter began using Kodachrome, a new color transparency film, and teaching himself the delicate, multi-step process for making color prints. For the next three decades he struggled against the notion that color photography was unsuitable for artists because it was “too literal.” Porter actually used the color process to make highly expressive prints by slightly increasing the brilliance, contrast, or saturation in the transparencies. In 1964 Porter wrote that he hoped his color photographs would reveal “a new dimension in the perception and representation of nature in photography.”

Between 1953 and 1984 Porter produced seven portfolios of nearly 8,000 prints. The Sierra Club as a collector’s edition published the image above from Porter’s Iceland portfolio.

Eliot Porter. Dark Canyon, Glen Canyon, 1965, 1965. Anonymous gift in honor of Hugh Edwards.

Photographs of the fragile beauty of the earth by Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and William Clift remind us of what is at stake when man intervenes with nature.

Purple Gallinule, Everglades National Park, Florida, March 2, 1954

Path in Woods, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, 1981

American photographer Eliot Porter was among the first to successfully bridge the gap between photography as a fine art and its roots in science and technology. Porter promoted the use of color photography from the 1940s until the mid-1970s, a time when most serious photographers worked in black and white. Porter’s work was widely published and used as a powerful visual argument for nature conservation. He explored new ways of presenting the natural world and his artistic and technical contributions to bird and landscape photography transformed these genres.

Cliff, Moonlight Creek, San Juan River, Utah, May 23, 1962

© 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist

Conservation Movement

In the early 1960s Porter began making photographic books with the Sierra Club, which played an important role in the conservation movement of the 1960s. The first book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World(1962), earned the Sierra Club an international reputation as a publisher of fine books.

The second book, The Place No One Knew, Glen Canyon on the Colorado (1963), was part of a campaign to stop construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. The vibrantly colored photographs of gulches, rock walls, and hidden canyons carved by the Colorado and San Juan Rivers did not prevent the dam from being built. However, it did result in federal review of all reclamation projects on western rivers and the passage of the Wilderness Act, which had been languishing in Congress since 1956.

© 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist

Eliot Porter, Balsam Spruce Forest, North Carolina Side of Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, May 11, 1968Collection of the Amon Carter Museum

This is a picture of a dark forest that seems to be lightly drizzling Clingman’s. Its dark and foggy and you can only see so far in the distance. When I look at this photo it reminds me a little of The Twilight Saga because the town they shot it in was full of forest and most of the movie was filmed in the forest. The photo has a mysterious and spooky feel to it. Its very confusing as well because of the fog and reminds me of being lost in a forest at sunset on a gloomy day. The photo was in Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains. In 1970 the year of the first Earth Day. This photo could very well have been telling a story especially when the Edward Abbey and Harry Caudill wrote powerful texts under all the pictures in the album explaining how Americans had fouled the region. The photo gives off a vibe that something might just peek out of the fog at any moment. The photo shows that Eliot Porter felt very strongly that the Americans were ruining this land. I don’t see a focal point in the photo but there is leading lines leading you towards everything in the picture from the thorns on the ground up the trunks of the trees. The balance of light and dark in this photo is very balanced and makes the picture very bold. Even though the photo is small you can see the details very clearly. Although there’s not much color but the green emanating off the thorns on the bottom the picture has a lot of personality. I chose this photo because I like the dark and mysterious feel. 

As its name implies, the dye transfer process literally involves transferring dyes (cyan, magenta, and yellow) in succession and in careful registration onto a sheet of gelatin-coated paper. Porter remained committed to the dye transfer process, both before and after the invention of simpler and more commonly used color papers, because it delivered richly colored prints and allowed him to control the exact hues and contrast of each final print.

  1. Porter would initially shoot a scene generally on 4-by-5-inch inch transparency film, recording the exposure conditions on a card.
  2. After developing the transparency, he would create three separation negatives by exposing the transparency three times onto three separate sheets of 4-by-5-inch black-and-white film. He would make the first exposure through a red filter, the second exposure through a green filter, and the third through a blue one.
  3. He then would create three matrices by shining white light through each separation negative via enlargement onto its own sheet of matrix film. (Each matrix would hold an image the same size as the final print.) The resulting matrices are positive images that have a slight relief. The thicker parts print as darker areas. Generally he would sandwich the separation negatives with masks to further control contrast. These masks were softly focused versions of the darker information on the separation negatives.
  4. To make a print, Porter would soak the red-filtered matrix in a bath of cyan dye, the green-filtered matrix in magenta dye, and the blue-filter matrix in yellow dye. Each matrix would soak up the dye according to its thickness, with the thicker areas picking up more color. He then would place one end of each dye-carrying matrix, in turn, onto register pins at the end of a special gelatin-coated paper and carefully roll it in contact with the paper. After about four minutes, when the dye had completely transferred to the paper, he would lift the matrix off, wash it, and register and roll the next matrix into place. The three dyes together would produce a full color print.
  5. He could subtly change the hues and contrast of each print by changing the acidity of his dye baths and by resoaking and rerolling one or more of the matrices onto the receiving paper. He would record the various “recipes” used to achieve a good print in an ongoing printing notebook.
  6. Once settling on a printing “recipe,” Porter would write that recipe on a printing card for future reference, in case he had to make another print of that same image in the future.                


Throughout his life, he remained committed to making and exhibiting meticulously rendered dye transfer color printsof his photographs. In the 1940s and 1950s, when lines between art and natural history museums were more fluid, he was just as likely to show at the American Museum of Natural History as the Museum of Modern Art. Art museums’ gradual acceptance of color in the 1960s and 1970s led to a regular stream of monographic exhibitions at both large and small venues. Highlights includeIntimate Landscapes (1980), the first one-person show of color photographs presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and major retrospectives sponsored by the Art Museum of the University of New Mexico (1973) and the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1987 and 2002).

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