A retrospective exhibit explores the influence of Eliot Porter on Robert Ketchum's work—and Ketchum's departure from it.
By Wes Pitts
"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." —Aldo Leopold
When Eliot Porter set aside his microscope and picked up a view camera, leaving behind his biochemical research at Harvard University to pursue photography full time, he couldn't possibly have known the impact his work as a photographer would make. Porter not only inspired generations of color photographers, but also helped fuel an environmental movement responding to a growing awareness of the effects of industrialization on the landscape.
Robert Glenn Ketchum came of photographic age alongside the environmental movement that Porter helped spur. As Ketchum read Rachel Carson's provocative bestseller Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, he was awakening to harsher realities of, and his personal responsibilities to, the larger world around him. Porter's landmark work, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, published by the Sierra Club in 1962, blazed a new trail not only for color landscape photography, but also for environmental conservation. It also opened a door for Ketchum—to evolve both his consciousness and his art—through the realization that color photography had great potential to go beyond commercial purposes and address larger social and environmental issues.
Porter, who died in 1990, left his archives to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, which is currently presenting "Regarding The Land: Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Legacy of Eliot Porter," an exhibition of 80 works by Porter and Ketchum that illustrates the impact these photographers have had on color landscape photography and the landscape itself.
Inspiration And Serendipity When Ketchum was first introduced to Porter's work in the late 1960s, he was still an art student with little interest in landscape photography. In Wildness changed that. The use of color in Porter's images was unlike anything Ketchum had seen, and he immediately began corresponding with Porter requesting technical insight. What film did he use? What camera? How did he achieve the color reproduction? Porter was polite enough to respond, though with terse answers.
Ketchum and Porter would ultimately meet in person as Ketchum researched for the 1978 exhibition "American Photographers and the National Parks." To supplement his income, Ketchum had been shooting commissioned landscapes for wealthy clients in the West, one of whom helped Ketchum to convince the National Park Foundation to fund the exhibition. It was through this project that the two photographers met.
The encounter was a formative experience for Ketchum. They discussed Porter's 1963 Sierra Club publication, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, about which Porter confided his frustration with the politics that influenced water use in the West and, more specifically, dam construction in the canyons of the Colorado River.
Porter regretted that his book was published too late to help preserve Glen Canyon, and it was this conversation that determined Ketchum to dedicate his life and photography to promoting the welfare of the natural world, by participating in and informing the environmental politics of the day.
"I wanted my work to be relevant to my life in more than just esoteric, aesthetic and artistically philosophical terms," says Ketchum. "I wanted my photographs to assist and support my activism in the most effective way possible, and that became my overriding consideration." In the early 1980s, Ketchum received a commission to photograph the Hudson River, and this project produced his 1985 book, The Hudson River and the Highlands. Ketchum calls this his first "mildly provocative book,"and it marked the beginning of his career as a photographer in the service of environmental issues. The book was instrumental in helping to illustrate the need for better land use and environmental management along the Hudson.