Celebrating Eliot Porter

"In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World", Eliot Porter book cover

Today, December 6, is Eliot Porter’s birthday, his eleventy first. Porter departed this life back in 1990, but his presence lives on in his photographs and books celebrating the beauty of the natural world.

When he began his career, color photography was considered appropriate for commercial purposes, but not for fine art photography. Porter changed that. He had the eye of an artist and was a master of the color printing process. Even today, his works are marvels of hue, intensity and contrast. In the beginning, his books were published by the Sierra Club and were among the first to be printed in a large format with great care taken in the quality of the paper and the fidelity of the reproductions. They were among the first coffee table books – large enough that you needed a flat surface to be able to see the images to their best advantage.

His first book, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, was published 50 years ago. It paired his photos of the New England countryside with selections from the work of Henry David Thoreau. Porter’s wife Aline first suggested the idea. To her, his photographs were like Thoreau’s writing. The idea took root and he slowly began rereading Walden and other works by and about Thoreau. At first he looked for descriptive passages that he might illustrate. But the thoughts he found most influential could not be illustrated, for example: “Most men, it seems to me, do not care for nature and would sell their share in all her beauty for a given sum. Thank God men have not yet learned to fly so they can lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”

The idea of illustration having been set aside, Porter hoped instead to complement in feeling and spirit Thoreau’s thinking and “to show the peril we face even more today by our ever faster destruction of life not our own.” Porter spent almost ten years, working on and off, selecting what he considered the best of Thoreau’s writing and photographing in all seasons the woods, streams, ponds and marshes of the Northeast. Gradually text and images came together into the book we know and love today.

The title’s eight words, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, “express the theme of the book and tell what Thoreau discovered one hundred years ago (now one hundred and fifty!) that a leaven of wildness is necessary for the health of the human spirit, a truth we seem to have forgotten in our headlong rush to control all nature. Unless we reverse our course all wildness will disappear from the American continent even within the lives of those who are now the age Thoreau was when he died in 1862.” (For the record, Thoreau was 44.)

Fifty years later, Porter’s prediction has not yet come to pass. Wildness is reduced and continuously under attack but still abides. In Wildness is the Preservation of the World was a revelation those who had not experienced the beauty of wild places. The book was passed from hand to hand, shared with friends and family, and soon became a bestseller. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was also published in 1962. Together, though in very different ways, these books encouraged a growing environmental consciousness in our country.

Eliot Porter’s photographs help us catch a glimpse of a world we rarely see. It’s sometimes easier to take in the beauty of a vast mountain or canyon rather than the small subtle beauties of a drift of autumn leaves or the first faint bloom of a Red Bud in spring. By looking closely at Porter’s photographs, we can learn to see more deeply and clearly the beauty that surrounds us everyday. He believed that “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis. You get better the more you play. The more you look at things, the more you see. …You just have to keep doing it.”

“Much is missed if we have eyes only for the bright colors. Nature should be viewed without distinction… She makes no choice herself; everything that happens has equal significance. Nothing can be dispensed with.”

So, on this, Eliot Porter’s birthday, may we suggest that you head to the library or your own bookshelves and find one of Porter’s books, sit down, and settle in for a good long look. Exercise your vision. You’ll be amazed at what you begin to see in the world around you.

Some of our favorite books by Eliot Porter:

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World

The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado

Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smokey Mountains

Nature’s Chaos

The Birds of North America: A Personal Selection

Eliot Porter Portrait, Amon Carter Museum

Amon Carter Museum

Eliot Porter’s personal archive is in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. Their guide to the collection includes biographical information and some small images of Porter’s work. We recommend visiting the museum collection or picking up one of Porter’s books to fully experience the beauty and vibrant nature of his photographs.
For additional information read an article from Sierra Club: “Eliot Porter celebrated ordinary rocks, fallen leaves and the lush complexity of life….” In Photography Is the Preservation of the World by Rebecca Solnit


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthday and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

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