Eliot Porter: 'In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World'

Those familiar with this still-revolutionary phrase might be perplexed by the Porter reference to Henry David Thoreau's words that helped catalyze a fundamental change in Americans' relation with nature (not in Walden but in Walking, a.k.a., "The Wild," an Atlantic Monthly essay published in 1861 from a lecture Thoreau revised and delivered between 1851 and his death in 1862). "What I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. ... From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind."

For we old-time nature photogs, "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World" is the seminal book of our art form. In this monograph, published by Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower exactly 100 years after Walking, Eliot Porter -- the Ansel Adams of color nature photography -- infused Thoreau's passages with his photos. According to a 2002 Sierra Magazine piece, "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World  revolutionized photographic book publishing by setting new standards for design and printing and proving the commercial viability of fine art photography books."

Porter has dominated my photo horizon this past week as, thanks to my Indiana Nature Photography partner Gary Morrison, I've found myself reconnecting with the artist whose work transformed mine in the late 1970s, when I was a black and white snob struggling with a passion for color transparency film. One trip to the IU Fine Arts Library for a perusal of Porter/Brower's 1963 followup Glen Canyon: The Place No One Knew relieved my guilt and still influences my work. Thinking about it still leaves me a bit breathless.

Porter's work came up in conversation during a recent photo tour Gary and I took, and he offered me one of his two copies of Intimate Landscapes: Photographs by Eliot Porter, a 1979 book from The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of Porter images, its first one-man color photography show in history. A Chicago native, Dr. Eliot Porter, M.D., gave up a teaching career at Harvard for nature photography after meeting Ansel Adams and being encouraged by the father of fine art photography, Alfred Stieglitz.

While my Mac was in the shop this week getting souped up to handle the work load I dump on it, I spent time reading and absorbing Intimate Landscapes, which led to the unearthing my 1989 paperback copy of In Wildness is the Preservation of the World. Photographically speaking, I spent my reduced digital time whittling more than 3,000 nature images to a couple dozen best-of-the-best for the Steven Higgs Gallery on our Indiana Nature Photography - Workshops and Tours website.

Combined, those two exercises reminded me of my color roots and just how much my photographic vision reflects Porter's. Indeed, few if any photos I have ever shot don't feel like some variation on his. And while I am neither a nature photography expert nor a critic, I see Porter's eye in just about every nature photographer whose work I admire.

It looks like that, when I'm finished whittling -- a task made more efficient and enjoyable by my supercharged machine -- I'll have to re-slice a couple hundred images by another 90 percent before I finish my Indiana Nature Photography Gallery. In the meantime, Gary is hard at work there, and I may have some up this afternoon. It will be a work in progress for awhile, but take a look.

Here are a few images I think Porter may have found had he been on the trail that day and bio links from the Eliot Porter Collection Guide and The Thoreau Society.

Photographs: Top: Hoosier National Forest, Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower; Left: Hoosier National Forest, Hayes Trail; Right, Minton Nature Preserve; Bottom, Portland Arch Nature Preserve.

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