A retrospective exhibit explores the influence of Eliot Porter on Robert Ketchum's work—and Ketchum's departure from it.
By Wes Pitts
Parallels And Divergence Porter once said, "As I became interested in photography in the realm of nature, I began to appreciate the complexity of the relationships that drew my attention." This idea of complex relationships in nature is fundamental to any conversation about Ketchum and Porter. It's the basis of our modern understanding of fragile ecosystems, to the protection of which both photographers dedicated their work. It's also an appropriate description of the subject matter of their photography. Both photographers convey the intertwined and interdependent nature of the world of which we're all a part.
But whereas Ketchum views Porter as "being really descriptive of place,"he says, "I don't want to describe places. I'm interested in the line and the form and the rectangle. Remember, the view through the camera back is upside down and backward. This, to me, is the interesting aspect." The similarities and differences between these two influential photographers are at the core of the "Regarding The Land"exhibit. The massive space is divided into four galleries, each approaching the work from a slightly different perspective. The exhibition assumes the viewer is aware of the environmental issues behind the work of the photographers and instead examines the formal aspects of the images from an artist's point of view.
Whereas Porter's work was very much about a place, Ketchum speaks of his photographs as "anti-landscapes. "If Porter's work is site-specific, Ketchum's is intended to stand independent of context and subject. The tree, its branches, their leaves—these are merely geometric elements to Ketchum.
"Specificity ruined everything," he says, so he staunchly avoided it, preferring to focus on the pure richness of biodiversity.
To underscore his rejection of the literal and purely descriptive, images from Ketchum's Order From Chaos series were given imaginative names like Brewster Boogie Woogie, And Gravity Lets You Down and Autumnal Warp, emphasizing that the viewer is neither expected nor wanted to focus on location or subject, but rather purely formal elements, abstractions and color. This is in sharp contrast to Porter, who remained a scientist driven to describe and categorize.
Moving through the exhibit is like walking through a virtual timeline of the work. Comparing their later images, the differences between Porter and Ketchum become even more distinct. Both photographers had experienced a measure of success and were able to travel greater distances to pursue imagery. While Porter was always drawn to very small details of the landscape, Ketchum's later work in Alaska, and particularly the aerial photography, is an exploration of formal abstraction created from the very "big view." Speaking of Porter's images from Antarctica, Ketchum observes that something is lost in them. They have an almost snapshot quality, reflecting the brief time Porter spent in the place. Conversely, Ketchum's later work in the Arctic is born from months and months of intimate contact with the land, its people and cultures, and the political issues of the day.
"It's the peripheral information that works its way in and becomes part of my filter," Ketchum confides. "The politics, the emotions and opinions I have from my experiences inform my work."
But Ketchum isn't thinking politics when he's shooting—behind the camera, there's no goal other than a wonderful formal image, full of color and geometry and abstraction. The politics and environmental activism come later. When he's in the field photographing, Ketchum is completely absorbed in the moment and the light and the negative space and the organic forms of the landscape.
One of the best parts of the exhibit for Ketchum is to see his work on the wall with the photographs of one of his greatest inspirations and mentors. There's guilty pleasure in it, too. Though Porter's color was revolutionary at the time, dye-transfer reproduction pales in comparison to the results Ketchum has achieved with modern color printing technologies like Cibachrome and, more recently, Fuji Crystal Archive. It's a great thrill to Ketchum that technology has enabled him to surpass the color reproduction that was so inspiring to him as a young artist.
The exhibit "Regarding The Land: Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Legacy of Eliot Porter" is at the Amon Carter Museum through January 7, 2007. Visit the museum's website at www.cartermuseum.org. Visit Robert Glenn Ketchum's website at www.robertglennketchum.com.