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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: December 19, 2017

PMA mounts show by color photography pioneer Eliot Porter

Written by: Bob Keyes
"Sunflower and Sand Dune," 1959, dye imbibition print, 16 by 11¾ inches. Gift of Owen W. and Anna H. Wells. Photos courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

“Sunflower and Sand Dune,” 1959, dye imbibition print, 16 by 11¾ inches. Gift of Owen W. and Anna H. Wells.
Photos courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

Eliot Porter was lucky in life. He was born to wealth, came east from Illinois to study science at Harvard and enjoyed being part of a family that owned a private island in Penobscot Bay. When it came to choosing a career, he walked away from his education to pursue his passion for photography.

Porter, the older brother of the painter Fairfield Porter, came of age at a moment when a serious artist who cared about photography took for granted that black-and-white was the only option. Color was considered vulgar, said Jessica May, deputy director and chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art. “But Eliot Porter has this scientific and medical training, and he saw the world in color,” May said. “He said something along the lines of ‘I will find my own way.’ ”

Porter was the first established art photographer to explore the natural world in color. This winter, the PMA is showing more than two dozen color photographs taken by Porter in a third-floor exhibition, “Eliot Porter’s Nature.” It opens Friday. All the images are part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Porter, who was born in 1901 and lived until 1990, was attracted to beautiful places, and this exhibition reflects his interests. “These are all places that Porter championed, which are wild places,” May said, noting the inclusion of at least one photo from Great Spruce Head Island, where the Porter family spent its summers. “Porter dedicated his life to recording fragile and extraordinarily beautiful landscapes.”

"Redbud Tree in Bottom Land, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, April 17, 1968," 1979, dye imbibition print, 13 by 10¾ inches. Gift of Owen W. and Anna H. Wells.

“Redbud Tree in Bottom Land, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, April 17, 1968,” 1979, dye imbibition print, 13 by 10¾ inches. Gift of Owen W. and Anna H. Wells.

He traveled extensively in the United States and to exotic places like Antarctica, Egypt and Greece. The images in “Nature” are from across the U.S., as well as the Galapagos Islands. There are images of tree-lined valleys from the Great Smoky Mountains, snowfields in Vermont and the river gorges of Kentucky.

Porter was persistent. He began taking photos seriously in the 1930s, after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1923 and a medical degree in 1929. He had his first exhibition in 1938, when Alfred Stieglitz gave him a show at An American Place, his gallery in New York. But it wasn’t until 1962 that Porter gained widespread acceptance for his color photography, when the Sierra Club published Porter’s book “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.”

The book combined his images from New England with the writing of Henry David Thoreau. It was a popular book and set a standard for photo books, creating what became the coffee-table book template. He made several other books and in doing so became one of the best-known nature photographers. His career blossomed, and in 1965, he became director of the Sierra Club for several years. He was later elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1979, he landed the first solo exhibition of color photography at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

May said Porter’s commitment to color stemmed from his love of birds. He couldn’t capture the beauty and detail of birds with black-and-white photography. Color commanded his attention because of its potential and challenge.

Because of his background in science, Porter was drawn to color printing. He perfected the dye-transfer printing process, which had been mostly associated with mass-media trades like filmmaking. Eastman Kodak introduced it in the 1940s, bringing color to the world of graphic arts.

“He was unparalleled, absolutely unparalleled,” May said. “What we see in Eliot Porter’s work is a little different than what we expect in color photography, which is completely descriptive. He was interested in rendering complex images of the world, but he controlled a lot of the terms with more precision than we think of with color photography. He knew exactly how to get what he wanted.”

His style was muted, and his photographs tended to flatten the landscape while capturing its complexity. These are close and quiet compositions of trees, rocks and rivers and fields.

May has an unusual history with Porter. Before coming to the Portland Museum of Art, she worked at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, where Porter left his voluminous archives. She knew his work well when she came to Portland, which owns about 30 of his photos.

Many of the images came to Portland from a 2013 gift of Anna and Owen Wells, a Falmouth couple that collected photography.

Maine has long loved Porter, and Porter loved Maine, May said, which explains why the PMA is well endowed with Porter prints.

“A lot of people who truly care about the history of photography live in Maine, and for folks who know their technical stuff and care about the history of photography, Eliot Porter is super, super important,” she said. “And Porter loved Maine. He got his start here, and grew up spending summers on Great Spruce Head Island. The combination of the fact that he loved Maine and Maine is such a profoundly important place in the history of American photography helps explain the depth of our collection.”

“Eliot Porter’s Nature”

WHERE: Portland Museum of Art
WHEN: Opens Friday, on view through March 18
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
HOW MUCH: $15 adults, $13 seniors, $10 students, free 14 and younger; free for all 4 to 8 p.m. Friday
INFO: or 775-6148

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