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Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness


Eliot Porter (1901-1990) was one of the most important and influential photographers of this century. Drawn from the extensive collection of the Eliot Porter Archives of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and 10 years in the making, Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness is a major retrospective examining this important photographer's achievements. This 162-print exhibition shares the tale of Porter's often frustrating, though ultimately successful effort to get fellow artists like Ansel Adams to recognize the expressive potential of color photography. Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness is on view at the Portland Museum of Art January 22, 2004 through March 21, 2004.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Eliot Porter pioneered the use of color photography and created a vision of nature that has fundamentally shaped the way we view and understand the world. By revealing the colorful nuances and variety of the natural world, Porter played a central role in bringing about the widespread acceptance of color photography as an artistic medium.

Lush examples of some of his earliest color photographs will reveal the remarkable stability of the dye transfer printing process, Porter's medium of choice, and explain how and why he turned to color. Examples of his 1950s color photographs will be compared with the work of other early color practitioners to distinguish his unusual concentration on nature's colors rather than color for its own sake-a stance that laid the groundwork for contemporary color photography.

Porter drew inspiration from photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Paul Strand. By taking their subjects and mimicking their compositions, Porter earned a remarkable solo exhibition in late 1938 at Stieglitz's renowned gallery An American Place. The show vaulted Porter into the ranks of the leading American photographers. Yet rather than rest on those accolades, Porter almost immediately began a sustained commitment to exploring the expressive potential of color.

Eliot Porter: The Color Wildness also highlights Porter's longtime commitment to draw attention to the world's environmental condition through photographs of diverse, ecologically significant places. A selection of photographs and other materials from Porter's first and still most popular project, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, provides the foundation for understanding Porter's mature career. Porter's photographs of the Glen Canyon demonstrate his effective teaming with the Sierra Club to stop widespread federal damming of rivers across the American West. His photographs also reveal how the canyon's terrain had induced him to shift from the generally straightforward portraits of plants, animals, and woods scenes found in his earlier work to focus on brilliant colors and even to play more consistently with abstraction.

Porter used the knowledge gained in creating his first two projects to develop alluring portraits of the natural worlds of his family's summer home on Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, and in the Adirondacks and the Smoky Mountains. The exhibition will close with a selection of the artist's photographs of Greece, Egypt, and China presented to highlight his little-known late commitment to photographing architecture and people in reflection of and the environmental movement's growing focus on international cultural ties.

Porter's first book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962), sold out before it came off press and set a new standard in design and printing. Finally, the artistic community began to understand what Porter had been seeing all along-that color photography could describe and express the emotion at the same time. The book's tremendous and unexpected commercial success induced the publication of a whole class of similar finely printed, oversized photography books. But even more importantly, the book helped transform its publisher, the Sierra Club, into a powerful international environmental force. It also led Porter to focus on making a myriad of compelling color photographs and books that would raise awareness of and appreciation for an expansive range of natural environments. The book's success allowed for Porter to spend the reminder of his life traveling the world constructing photographic portraits of endangered places from Maine to the Galapagos.

By the end of his career, Porter had produced more than 9,000 photographic prints and 25 books, and had been given more than 100 one-person exhibitions including shows at such prestigious venues as The Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had played an instrumental role in building today's broad-based environmental movement. And he had induced a flood of imitators whose work now seems ubiquitous.

Accompanying the exhibition is 150-page catalogue containing three groundbreaking essays and 110 finely printed full-page plates co-published by the Amon Carter Museum and Aperture. The catalogue addresses Porter's character, use of color, and environmental contributions through essays by Dr. John B. Rohrbach, associate curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum, respected independent historian Rebecca Solnit, and Eliot's brother, Jonathan Porter.


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