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So close to the Earth

Eliot Porter explored the planet's skin, seeking out the intimate with images of birds and flowers. Beautiful, yet static to modern eyes.

July 10, 2006|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

When Eliot Porter started photographing in color in the late 1930s, pictures of nature in all of its purity were well within the art mainstream (think Edward Weston, Ansel Adams), but color was not. Because of its associations with commercial use, color was considered a vulgar tool for artists -- too literal, too obvious, an embarrassment.

Now, more than 60 years later, all the big art stars working in photography use color: Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky. But images of untrammeled nature? Too literal, too obvious, an embarrassment.

This credibility warp makes the viewing of "Eliot Porter: In the Realm of Nature" at the J. Paul Getty Museum an uneasy experience, one of tempered, reluctant pleasure.

Porter's output, without exception, is beautiful, but it does not have the enduring impact of exceptional work. He was a pioneer, to be sure -- initially in photographing birds in their natural habitats, then in using color -- but time has naturalized the adventurousness that went into the work's making. Rarely do the images feel bold or fresh.

Part of the problem is compositional. Porter sought out the intimate in nature, purposely avoiding grand and majestic vistas. His photographs usually have no horizon. They are nearly always filled frame to frame, with trees, rocks, grasses, leaves. Within this shallow stage, Porter focused on a single contrast: flowers sprouting from stone, flowers of one color against another, shadowed trees against trees in sunlight, and so on.

Nearly all the pictures are reducible to that one contrasting relationship, which is grasped easily, immediately. After that momentary hum of pleasure, there's little left to feel or explore. No deeper complexity reveals itself over time.

Complexity is there in Porter's work but not on the surface. It's all in the back story -- the geology, the ornithology, the implication of ecological patterns and rhythms and in the Thoreau-inspired practice of paying close, reverential attention.

Porter (1901-90) was born to a prosperous family in Illinois. His parents bought an island in Maine when he was a child, and Porter spent his summers there, investigating the flora and fauna with a Kodak box camera. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in chemical engineering, then continued on to the university's medical school. Upon completion of his training, he stayed at Harvard, teaching bacteriology and biological chemistry for nearly a decade.

All the while, however, he was making photographs, and in 1938, Alfred Stieglitz gave him a show at his distinguished New York gallery, An American Place. The black-and-white pictures that lead off the Getty show indicate why. Taken in Maine and elsewhere, they are steeped in a sense of place, in the textures and pace of rural life. Dirt roads and narrow footbridges open up and invite us deeper into the images, into implied, undisclosed depths.

Porter turned full time to photography (and to color) shortly after the Stieglitz show, and his career as an exhibiting artist sped off. He was included in the first exhibition staged by the Museum of Modern Art's newly established department of photography in 1939; subsequently he appeared there numerous times in group and solo shows. He was also the first color photographer to have a one-person show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1979. Some 25 monographs of his work made throughout the U.S. and abroad have been published, all defining a vision marked by beauty and harmony.

He had an early and profound interest in birds, and his photographs of their egg-filled nests are among the most stirring in the show. In a black-and-white image from 1938, speckled song sparrow eggs rest at the calm eye of a reedy, swirling galaxy of a nest. In a color photograph from the '50s, Porter tilted his camera down into the cleft of a pine tree, where a nest of needles, dried leaves and downy feathers cushioned a cluster of eggs. Each nest picture invokes a discovery, a suggestion of renewal, a quiet gasp of potential.

During the 1940s, Porter received two Guggenheim Fellowships to support his bird photography. He devised methods for capturing images of the birds in situ: towers and platforms to bring him up to nest level and strobe lighting to capture their quick movements.

More than 20 of his close-up bird studies are included in the exhibition. They flesh out our understanding of Porter more than they enthrall on their own terms. In their day, however, they merited substantial attention from both art and natural history venues.

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