The Color of the Adirondacks: Eliot Porter’s ‘Forever Wild’
What set off America’s environmental movement in the ‘60s? We often think of Rachel Carson’s report on pesticides in “Silent Spring” (1962). But others have pointed to a less famous book released that same year by the photographer Eliot Porter (1901-1990). In 1962, the environmental organization the Sierra Club raised thousands of dollars to publish “‘In Wildness is the Preservation of the World,’ Selections and Photographs by Eliot Porter,” a book that set Henry David Thoreau’s rousing words to Porter’s nature photography, which had harnessed Kodak’s latest advances in color film. One reviewer enthused at the time that, with the publication of Porter’s photographs, “conservation ceased to be a boring chapter on agriculture in fifth-grade textbooks, or the province of such as birdwatchers.”
That same year, Harold Hochschild, president of the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, together with his wife, Mary, commissioned some photographs from Porter. The Hochschilds were responding to private developers’ challenges to the New York State constitution’s “forever wild” clause. The two planned to recruit several photographers and publish a book to promote the region’s natural beauty. They had expected no more than a dozen images from Porter, but the photographer had gleefully located “an inexhaustible wealth of subjects,” as he later recalled. He gave them over a hundred. Meeting at the couple’s winter residence in Princeton, New Jersey, the three of them decided to produce a different sort of book—published 50 years ago next year—that became “Forever Wild: The Adirondacks” (1966), which set Porter’s color images to nature writer William Chapman White’s poetry.
New to the area, Porter found much to admire about the Adirondacks. He delighted in the region’s geological history and the networks of rivers, ponds, and lakes. He was fond of noting that the Adirondacks peaked in the fall, when the “blueberry bushes glow like the coals of burned-out fires in the slanting rays of the sun.” Porter honors that season in his photographs, but also the spring, summer, and winter. His best pictures, which forgo mannered camera angles and create radically foregrounded landscapes, are like flattened tapestries sewn with rock, water, tree, and leaf (they also suggest an interest in Abstract Expressionist and Color Field painting from that time—styles that eliminated illusions of depth and stressed the canvas’ flat surface). Here, Porter later said, was “a land where one can still see what the land once was…where the human spirit can yet be free.”
Porter’s fascination with “the untamed wild world,” as he once called it, was perhaps a reaction to his tame upbringing and unremarkable early career. The son of a Bryn Mawr-educated mother and a biologist-architect father, Porter’s childhood was spent between Winnetka, Illinois, outside Chicago, and the family’s private island off the coast of Maine. From an early age, Porter had the archivist’s impulse, collecting things with a merry relish. Every visit to the sea brought back a sand dollar, starfish, sea cucumber, or limpet. He also used nets and cyanide bottles to capture and preserve butterflies and moths. Enrolling at Harvard in 1920, Porter chose a career in chemistry; and after medical school, he worked as a bacteriologist at a Harvard research lab, but found the work insufferably dry and its rewards elusive—a far cry from the immediate satisfaction of picture taking.
In this period, photographers’ careers either began or ended with a chat with Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer, critic, and gallery-operator who summered at Lake George. Eliot Porter was no exception. Soon after he took up photography in earnest, Porter’s brother, the figurative painter and important critic Fairfield Porter, introduced him to Stieglitz. At first Stieglitz’s remarks were “far from encouraging,” Porter recounted. But some years later, after repeated critiques and dismissals, Stieglitz exhibited 29 black-and-white photographs of Porter’s at his New York gallery, An American Place. “Some of your photographs are the first I have ever seen which made me feel: ‘There is my own spirit,’” Stieglitz wrote to Porter. Until then the gallerist had only offered two other photographers solo exhibitions: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, two giants of the camera art.
The show was a success; Porter even made $400. He resigned from the world of science to concentrate on photography, but his ambitions as a photographer remained rooted in science rather than fine art. With the gusto of a geek, Porter talked about photographing birds—his goal was “to raise the standards by which bird photographs are judged.” Birds needed to be captured in color, so Porter mastered and tweaked Kodak’s difficult dye-transfer development system, bringing to color photography an unprecedented level of control at a time when debates still raged about its artistic merits. Contrary to other photographers, Porter viewed color vision as a biological fact. He wanted to photograph things the way he saw them, the way they actually were, as he did in the Adirondacks.
According to the photographer, Mary Hochschild controlled the direction of the Adirondack book. She had urged Porter to photograph the area’s more obvious attractions: the grandeur of the High Peaks, for instance. But Porter was opposed to that kind of spectacle, which nearly cost him the job. “Underlying and supporting these brilliant displays are slow, quiet processes that pass almost unnoticed,” Porter argued; and he wanted to call attention to them. “Nature,” he said, “should be viewed without distinction.” He was forced to compromise his convictions occasionally, but the enthralling blandness of some of the Adirondack photos is what made them so powerful 50 years ago. In contrast to Ansel Adams’ hyper-cinematic photographs of the West, Porter stages bare encounters with the natural world, forcing viewers to see the intricacy of the mundane. Everything about the work recalls Thoreau’s recommendation: “Simplify, simplify.”
Although he eventually photographed in far-flung locations—Turkey, Antarctica, Iceland, Greece, Egypt, and China—Porter need not have done so. His best photographs are of some rocks, pond vegetation, or a little moss.