The Forgotten Intimate Landscape

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

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.

His goal in photographing subjects others might pass by was a paradox; he wanted the observer to have no question at all as to why the image was made. At the time, other than Porter, only Adams was using this idea in some of his work, but he didn’t grab hold of it as strongly as Porter. Like Adams, however, Porter perfected his vision in the darkroom, producing the legendary dye-transfer prints that gave him almost as much control as a modern-day digital photographer over color, contrast and density.

Porter reached the height of his career in the 1960s and 1970s when his images were used to fight some of the fledgling battles of the emerging environmental movement. Even though his photographs didn’t give the big picture of some areas like the soon-to-die Glen Canyon in Utah, they were perfect when paired with the work of Thoreau in nature photography classics like In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.

The Caño Cristales in Colombia owes its unique appearance to red, yellow, green and blue algae; Ice formation along a spring inside a cave, Arches National Park, Utah.

Today, most professionals and aspiring photographers are tuned into the big landscape, along with a few working in the smaller close-up world, leaving the great innovation of the intimate landscape behind. Shooting wide-angle images that include great foregrounds, clouds and stunning light is so satisfying artistically and commercially, it’s easy to see why.

My suggestion is that in between our mad chase for that elusive light and world-class subject, we slow down for a moment, look at the subjects a little closer to the camera and perhaps even pay attention to, as Don Henley says, the heaven under our feet. Looking for the midrange subject in the digital world is easy. It’s always there for the taking, and the speed with which we now can be assured of a proper exposure in our histograms and a good-looking image in Live View leaves us more time to experiment.

In shooting for books, shows and submissions to clients, I also try to include some intimate landscapes to cleanse the visual palette for the big blockbusters. The smaller scene is the perfect rest from endless national park grandeur. Also, if the intimate landscape hits the right note, it can be as commercially viable as the vistas. I have several medium-distance prints in my gallery that are among the best sellers, and I wish I had more.

You can see more of Tom Till‘s intimate landscapes at

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Tips For Shooting INTIMATE Landscapes

1 Finding The Subject. It may take some retraining of your eye to start seeing in the forgotten zone of the intimate landscape. We look for great foregrounds and great backdrops, but besides serving as the walk into the scene, part of your image, the foreground, may stand on its own as an intimate landscape. Don’t forego your big scenic, but reconsider the foreground, if it’s good enough, as a stand-alone subject. Look for interesting colors, patterns, shapes and textures that can fill the frame well and aren’t miles away. In the Southwest, as Porter demonstrated, our narrow canyons don’t allow much room to see far beyond the perfect setting to shoot nearby. In states without many big scenics, intimate landscapes may abound, giving the mostly urban population of this country nature subjects to shoot close to home.

Bald cypress tree in fog, Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, Tennessee.

2 Lens Selection. Porter mainly used lenses in the 50-120mm range (in 35mm terms), with the average distance of his subject ranging from five to 50 feet away. There are no hard-and-fast rules about this, and telephotos sometimes can compress distance to create an intimate feel from more distant subjects.

3 Lighting. Though Porter eschewed the sunrise and sunset light many photographers use for landscapes, there’s no reason great light can’t be used with closer subjects. Also, I think a great time to shoot these kinds of shots and subjects can be in the pastel times before sunrise and after sunset that digital cameras capture so well.

4 Get Closer. With all my work and with my students, I’m a disciple of the “get closer” school of thought. Getting closer will not alone lead you to compositional greatness, but it certainly will improve your landscape and nature images.

5 Work Hard On Your Compositions. With the overpowering elements of scale and size to work with, outdoor photographers sometimes treat composition as an arcane set of rules they have to follow. Porter’s intimate landscapes are case studies in classically beautiful still-life imagery. I think his talents were God-given, and composition is hard to teach, but one cure for better compositions is to shoot a lot. You’ll improve with practice.

6 Embrace The Abstract. I rejoice when I can create an abstract image from a totally natural scene. It’s good fun to take something familiar and create something entirely new, and it’s the essence of art. It’s also the chance to do something I haven’t seen before, and I find it as fulfilling as any part of my job.

7 Look At Porter’s Intimate Landscapes. Owning original Porter prints may not be feasible for most of us, but acquiring books is possible. Though I was shocked at the high prices of some Porter books online, many, especially paperbacks, are dirt cheap. I pored over these books constantly in my youth, assimilating the style and substance as much as I could. Looking at his great images will benefit anyone’s shooting.