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Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness


Providing the first in-depth assessment of the artistic legacy of this important color photographer and environmentalist, the special exhibition "Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness" will be on view at the Amon Carter Museum December 7 through March 23, 2003. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Eliot Porter (1901-1990) pioneered the use of color photography, establishing a new model for viewing nature. His groundbreaking efforts led to widespread acceptance of color photography as an artistic medium and set a new expressive standard for depicting nature. (left: Eliot Porter, Ice Cave, Scott base, Ross Island, Antartica, December 7, 1975, dye transfer print, ©1990, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist)

"Eliot Porter combined childhood wonder, scientific insight, technical finesse, and artistic talent to create a new style of landscape photography, one built on quiet details rather than grand expanses, on color rather than light and shadow," says John Rohrbach, associate curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum. "He caused people to look more closely at the world around them, and to love it a little more. Today, his approach is so pervasive that it is difficult to remember where it began. This exhibition shows those roots, revealing how hard Porter had to fight to get his colleagues to accept color, and how consistently and effectively he used his art to draw attention to the colorful, diverse, and delicate beauty of places around the world."

"Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness" will present 162 original photographic prints and related ephemera drawn largely from the Carter's extensive Porter archives. The artist bequeathed his archives to the museum in 1990. The collection foundation comprises more than 7,500 original dye transfer prints and 1,800 black-and-white prints, representing examples of almost every image the artist printed. Supplementing those holdings are more than 90,000 of Porter's color transparencies and negatives, the artist's 1,100-volume library, and his extensive manuscript archives. Since acquiring the collection, the Carter has received additional gifts of Porter's extensive correspondence with two of his sons.

The exhibition will be divided into two main sections. The first introduces the artist and explains how he pioneered color photography. Vivid examples and comparisons reveal his leadership in gaining public and artistic acceptance of color landscape photography in the face of colleague concerns that color was either too difficult or too realistic. The second and main section explores the artist's 30-year practice of creating evocative, environmentally aware portraits of places around the world. The overview of Porter's masterful prints will be arranged chronologically. Visitors will see works that depict diverse environments from New England to China, and they will learn how Porter contributed to the globalization of environmentalism while retaining his artistic integrity. "Query labels" enhance this transit by asking viewers to respond to open-ended questions that facilitate an understanding of the quandaries that Porter faced regarding his artistic choices and environmental concerns. A family guide brochure will further help adults and children interact with the exhibition. Computer display terminals within the galleries will offer visitors the opportunity to see a dye transfer print being made, the chance to experiment with color mixing, and the ability to see many more images that the artist created in diverse places around the world. An online learning guide for students supplements these interactive terminals. This guide will help students and teachers understand how Porter became an artist, how he used his artistic skill for environmental causes, and the relevance of his art today. This guide and related teaching components will be presented on the Carter's Web site, http://www.cartermuseum.org/, when the exhibition opens. An extensive Web-based collection guide, listing the Porter holdings and presenting more than 750 digital examples of the artist's prints, will also be featured on the Carter's site. (left: Eliot Porter, Sunrise on River, Navajo Creek, Glen Canyon, Utah, 1961, dye transfer print, ©1990, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist)

An additional education component will be set up in the Focus on Photographs gallery. "Supreme Flexibility: Eliot Porter's Use of the Dye Transfer Process" will demonstrate the stages of the dye transfer process in object form, including an original transparency, the separation negative, the matrices, and the final print. A selection of Porter prints will also be on the walls in this gallery, with several printings of the same image revealing the nuances that Porter brought to his work and showing the flexibility of the dye transfer process. "Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness" is accompanied by a 150-page exhibition catalogue of the same name, produced by the Carter in collaboration with the renowned photography book publisher Aperture. This oversized 11-by-14-inch catalogue, offered in both hard and softcover, contains 90 facsimile plates, 31 illustrations, and an extensive chronology. The book presents three essays: the first by Dr. John Rohrbach, project director and the Carter's associate curator of photographs; the second by independent historian Rebecca Solnit, who discusses how Porter's imagery has come to establish the model of contemporary nature photography; and the third by Porter's son Jonathan, a scholar of Chinese history at the University of New Mexico. The exhibition will also be accompanied by a series of public programs, including gallery talks, a film series, and other special lectures, as well as a symposium scheduled for Saturday, February 15, 2003.

"Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness" is organized by the Amon Carter Museum.


About Eliot Porter

Eliot Porter grew up in Winnetka., Ill., a town north of Chicago. His father, James Foster Porter, introduced him to nature in the wooded surroundings in Illinois, and later on Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, which the elder Porter purchased in 1910. That island became the family's summer home in 1912. Porter began taking pictures with a Kodak Brownie box camera when he was 11 years old, initially photographing birds around his two homes. (left: Eliot Porter, Winter Wren, Great Spruce Head Island, ME, July 18, 1960, dye transfer print, ©1990, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the artist)

Inspired by a high school chemistry class, Porter studied biochemistry and bacteriology at Harvard University before receiving a degree in medicine from that university in 1929. He began his professional career as a medical researcher there, but soon found himself more interested in taking pictures than conducting laboratory experiments. In 1934, his brother, the painter Fairfield Porter, arranged for him to meet Alfred Stieglitz, who, impressed with Porter's work, exhibited some of the artist's landscape photographs at his gallery, An American Place, in late 1938. That show induced Porter to become a full-time artist. Shortly thereafter, seduced by color's realism, Porter became one the first established artists to commit to exploring the new medium of color photography.


About the dye transfer process

This complex and labor-intensive color print process allows precise control over image color. Each dye-cyan, magenta and yellow-can be adjusted separately, intensifying one while not affecting others. As a result, dye transfer prints provide excellent color saturation and unusual brilliance.

Different from most other color processes (in which the dyes are already present in the paper), this process individually transfers color dyes onto a single sheet of paper, producing a full-color image. First, a photograph is made and processed using color transparency film. The color transparency is then exposed three times, through red, green and blue filters, to make three separation negatives on black-and-white film. These are enlarged to make three black-and-white film positives, or matrices, that are the size of the final print. Each matrix is placed in the dye bath of its complementary color: cyan, magenta or yellow. Upon absorbing its dyes, each matrix is rolled one at a time in contact with a receiving paper. A layer of gelatin on the paper absorbs the dye from each matrix, creating the final print.


Exhibition Itinerary


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