Eliot Porter

Dates1901 - 1990
RolesPhotographer, Printmaker
BornWinnetka, Illinois, United States
DiedSanta Fe, New Mexico, United States

Between the late 1930s when the first popular color film was invented, and the mid-1970s when art museums began collecting color photography, Eliot Porter made vivid images of landscapes and birds. During that time, his photographs--which are remarkable for their subtlety and vibrancy--encouraged widespread acceptance of color photographs as works of art.

Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois in 1901 to a prosperous family. As a boy he photographed the natural surroundings of his family's summer home, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine. After earning degrees in chemical engineering and medicine, he spent a decade working as a scientist and teacher. The elegant black-and-white landscapes he made at the time reflected the influence of photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Ansel Adams. In 1938, Stieglitz gave Porter a solo show at his influential New York art gallery, An American Place. That significant event inspired Porter to make photography his profession. In 1939, he switched to color photographic materials, mastering the delicate multi-step printing techniques. Although Porter often struggled against an opinion that color photographs were not art, his exquisite prints earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship and a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Aside from Porter's exquisite dye transfer prints, he became known for his fine art publications. In the 1960s, he began a long-term collaboration with the Sierra Club to produce books focusing on the preservation of natural resources. His first, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962), changed notions about what nature photography could be. The second, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado (1963), spurred federal reclamation of Western rivers, which ultimately led to passage of the Wilderness Act. In his lifetime, Porter produced twenty-five books, including one that he worked on for much of his life, Birds of North America: A Personal Selection (1972).