Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Eliot Porter is a seminal figure in the eventual acceptance of color photography as art. The 1962 Sierra Club edition of In Wildness is the Preservation of the World is widely cited as one of the most influential photo books of all time, helping simultaneously launch the environmental movement and the advent of high quality color book reproductions.
Despite its prominence, Porter's work has not been especially well treated in book form since his initial fame in the 1960s. Part of this is technical. The purity and subtlety of color that dye transfer prints are capable of is very difficult to reproduce well with offset lithography. The reds in particular can quickly degenerate into smeared blobs of undifferentiated color. Another challenge is the shift in Porter's color interpretation of the original dye transfer prints over time. As is documented in The Color of Wildness (Aperture, 2001), Porter altered his color interpretation of specific images over the years. The subtle and beautiful photograph "Redbud Trees in Bottomland" exists in versions that vary from cool violet to warm pastel in overall color. Which version do you pick? Finally, the relatively small market for high quality photo books, and relentless cost pressures, makes it very difficult to do justice to such a challenging subject.
All that makes this new book from the Getty Museum especially welcome. It's a modestly-sized book with a brief foreword by Sierra Club director Michael Brune, followed by a concise biography and summary of Porter's career by Paul Martineau. The photo reproductions are, in a word, superb. They come as close as offset printing can to conveying the tonal delicacy and color purity of dye transfer prints, and compare very favorably to all previous reproductions of Porter's images in book form. All are reproduced with adequate white margins, and none are defaced by printing them across the gutter. My benchmark photograph, "Redbud Trees in Bottomland" (plate 40), is beautifully rendered. It avoids the leaden shadows and cool balance of the version seen in The Color of Wildness as well as the somewhat pallid pastel impression found in Intimate Landscapes (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979). The first sequence of photographs are Porter's very accomplished black-and-white landscapes, and the last sequence are his immaculately lit (think O. Winston Link) photos of birds at the nest. In between are the color images he is best known for.
If you own only one Eliot Porter book, this is the one to have. My only complaint is that the typography is rather charmless, using a stark modernist sanserif typeface. In Wildness... had David Brower's elegant design employing the beautiful Centaur typeface, which was also used by Eleanor Morris Caponigro with even greater skill in Intimate Landscapes.
There are other books out there displaying Eliot Porter's work, though most are out of print. The color reproductions in the Sierra Club's 1962 edition of In Wildness is the Preservation of the World are remarkably good for their day, and they have stood the test of time surprisingly well. The book was so popular that it can often be found in used bookstores. Subsequent Sierra Club editions of Porter's work do not hold up as successfully; those on the Galapagos and Antarctica have reproductions that tend to look chalky and blocked-up. Reproductions in The West (1988) are pretty good; those in Appalachian Wilderness (1970) are mediocre, but the subject matter may make it worthwhile to you. Caveat Emptor. Intimate Landscapes (1979) can be very pricey used, but the reproductions are quite good, if mostly leaning to the pastel side, and the book's design and typography are beautiful. Finally, Aperture's The Color of Wildness (2001) is worth a look. Reproduction quality is hit or miss, with some images coming off very well indeed, others going very dark in the shadows.
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Featured Comments from:
Jim Bullard: "I haven't seen 'Redbud Trees in Bottomland' before (at least that I can remember) so I have no basis for comparison. I have seen an exhibit of his original prints and was reminded of a comment that Porter said Ansel Adams made. After viewing a newly hung exhibit of Porter's Ansel told him 'You don't get good whites.' Based on the exhibit I saw (in the '90s?) I had to agree. That said I like Porter's landscape photographs and I'll have to check out this book."
Charles Cramer: "I remember seeing an exhibition of Porter dye transfer prints at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite perhaps 10 years ago. I was disappointed in the prints, as they seemed rather lifeless. The gallery offers several of Porter's books for sale, and directly comparing the reproductions to the prints reinforced my opinion. I subsequently came to learn that Porter did not use highlight masks when making his dye transfers. Matrix film (used to make the 'printing plates') is incredibly flat in the highlights, and needs the boost that highlight masks provide for proper reproduction from transparency films. Using three-color highlight masks made a huge improvement in my prints. Just because a print is a dye transfer doesn't automatically make it sublime...."