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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Forgotten Intimate Landscape

Think like Eliot Porter, and adopt a “less is more” approach to your landscapes

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The elusive and subtle point between the sweeping landscape and the detailed close-up is what Eliot Porter captured in his nature photography. Tom Till calls Porter his "hero" for the way he quietly developed this style of landscape photography. Above: Lone beech tree at the Salto Grande waterfall, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile.

Ice patterns form around Pleneau Bay, Antarctica.
The history of American landscape photography generally has been a continuum of great photographers like William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams and David Muench training their cameras on the big scenic image. The majestic deserts, mountains, coasts and forests of our great country are so grand and appealing, it makes perfect sense to want to capture and communicate their magnificence. Up to the present day, thousands of photographers descend upon the Tetons, Mesa Arch, Yosemite Valley or Grand Canyon to continue this sacred tradition.

One man had another idea, and he happened to be one of the first to think outside the box when it came to landscape and nature photography. His arrival on the photography scene happened to coincide with the first color film, making him also the first, or one of the first, color nature photographers in the world. In my way of thinking about art, the first person to break through the wall and create something completely new is the true artist, and although this man, Eliot Porter, was a microbiologist by trade, his innovations with color film quickly gained him a reputation in the fine-art community.

I met Eliot Porter once in Salt Lake City. He was quiet, diminutive and impeccably dressed. This unassuming, non-egotistical man will always be my hero. He created color nature photography and a unique style that I hope isn't dead, but with New England reserve, he wasn't about to ascend to any throne.

Stream flows over limestone ledges near the Colorado River, Gold Bar Canyon, Utah.
Perhaps his biggest paradigm shift was the creation of what photography critics called the "intimate landscape." While no precise definition of the intimate landscape exists, a look at Porter's work, which is widely available from online booksellers for bargain prices, gives insight into his methods. The intimate landscape wasn't a big vista or a macro image, but an image of a subject in the area somewhere in between. The lighting was usually flat from cloud cover or open shade, and great magic hour illumination wasn't part of the equation. Instead, Porter relied on pattern, texture, color, reflections and tight, immaculate compositions. The horizon and sky were often missing, and many of his shots were wonderfully abstract. Instead of the images of nature symbolizing something else entirely, an idea I never liked, Porter tried to en-capsulate all of nature's grandeur into a smaller space, each photograph being a symbol for the deep canyons, spiky peaks and rushing oceans and rivers just out of the scene. Intimate landscapes are another way for us to communicate, perhaps not as forcefully, but as effectively, the beauty and power of nature and its fragility and intrinsic value. Porter was the ultimate purveyor of the "less is more" philosophy in nature photography.


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