When a camera lands in a child’s hands, it might spark a promising interest and sow the seed of a new desire that will grow with age. It is perhaps a sign that a photographer’s destiny lies dormant in the child and the first photos might even become the raw material of his future work.
This is exactly Eliot Porter’s (1901–1990) life story: aged ten, his Kodak Brownie in hand, the little shutterbug was increasingly keen on photographing the birds populating a small island his father had bought off the coast of Maine. It was a wonderful playground, where the boy could explore the potential of photography and discover his passion for portraying nature.
Growing up, however, he first completed his studies in chemistry and medicine at Harvard. He launched into research in biochemistry in the late 1920s, before feeling the pull of his first love: birds and photography. Encouraged by his brother who was a painter, he bought a Leica and embarked on what would become his life’s work: subtle, powerful images of North American nature.
It was the 1930s, and Eliot Porter admired the photographer Ansel Adams, who gave him inspiration, as well as Alfred Stieglitz, a gallery owner with a growing reputation. The latter encouraged Porter to devote himself to photography and organized an exhibition in his gallery on the theme of birds. In 1941, Eliot Porter won the Guggenheim Fellowship which sealed his return to photography.
What was revolutionary at the time was that Eliot Porter was using Kodachrome film which had only been released in 1935 and which made it possible for him to do color photography. In fine art photography, color was still unheard-of. It would become accepted later on, but Porter used it as early as 1940. Perhaps the fact that his main subject was nature made the use of color more acceptable?
In any case, color allowed Porter to reveal nature in all its beauty: whether he was taking portraits of trees turning golden in the autumn sun or capturing the flight of the American purple gallinule, he had a knack for bringing out the colors that make the world marvelous. To photograph birds, however, he needed specialized equipment, including flashbulbs, tripods, and traps. He would set it all up in the vicinity of nests to capture fledglings and their mothers—one of his favorite subjects.
Porter would spend hours looking for birds’ nests. One must picture the photographer like a gold-seeker, venturing into remote territories and exploring inaccessible areas. In Porter’s words, “the nest finder must go out into the fields and woods with his wits sharpened to a razor’s edge, with all his senses tuned to their highest pitch, and with his mind free from the distractions and preoccupations that burden the society he has temporarily left behind.”
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Les oiseaux d’Eliot Porter
January 4 – May 10, 2020
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd, Fort Worth, TX 76107, United States