Form & Function

A retrospective exhibit explores the influence of Eliot Porter on Robert Ketchum's work—and Ketchum's departure from it.

 

"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.



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.

 

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