Eliot Porter

Gazette Article by: Barbara Joyce
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1995

Eliot Porter: Winnetka Native-born Nature Photographer

“…From my experience it appears highly desirable to order one’s life in accord with inner yearnings no matter how impractical they may seem.”  Eliot Porter

Eliot Porter earned an M.D. at Harvard Medical School and taught biochemistry for ten years. Yet he chose to break with science to follow a career in photography. His decision was greeted with great skepticism by his family, friends, and associates.

Porter, born in Winnetka in 1901, achieved national recognition as a photographer whose subject was the natural world. His first major exhibition was organized by Alfred Stieglitz in 1939. Many exhibitions followed, including Porter’s one-man show, “Intimate Landscapes,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He also published numerous volumes for the Sierra Club series, and his photographs were reproduced on Sierra Club posters.

Color was Porter’s medium. When color film first became available in the 1940s, it was not highly regarded by photographers. However, Porter felt that color was essential to capture the beauty in nature, and he began to achieve thrilling results with Eastman Kodak’s new color film, Kodachrome.

“…The colors in my photographs are always present in the scene itself, although I sometimes emphasize or reduce them in the printing process,” he wrote in his book, Eliot Porter.

Porter’s technique was described as “impeccable” by fellow photographer Ansel Adams. His compositions were said to be unerring. Porter was also a passionate conservationist, a theme he championed in his books. He attributed his devotion to the natural world as the inevitable consequence of his childhood environment and family influence. Like his brother, the painter Fairfield Porter, he developed artistic sensibilities at an early age.

The Porter house was situated high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in the ravines on Sheridan Road. It was designed by his father, a graduate of the Columbia Architecture School. The house recalls a Classical style with Ionic pilasters at its corners, Corinthian columns, and Doric-columned porches on each side of the house.  It was demolished in 1994.

In 1990, Eliot Porter died in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His books continue to sell in bookstores and circulate in public libraries.

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