Porter, Eliot Furness (1901 – 1990) American Photographer

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Eliot Furness Porter (1901 1990)
American photographer

Born in Winnetka, Illinois, Eliot Porter's fascination with nature (and birds in particular) was evident from a very early age. His father, an architect with a keen interest in Greek, Gothic, and Roman architecture and art, encouraged his son's insightful, artistic talents. Using the camera he received as a gift from his father, the young Porter began photographing primarily landscapes during the family's sojourns on islands off the coast of Maine. There he cultivated an enthusiasm and love for naturalist photography. He noted in the introduction of the classic book, Birds of America, "...the most satisfactory outlet for expressing my excitement over birds was the camera, rather than pencil or brush."

Porter began his undergraduate education at Harvard University in 1920. Casting aside his passion for photography, he pursued the more practical major of chemical engineering; he earned his bachelor's degree (cum laude) in 1924. He continued his education at Harvard's Medical School where he earned his doctor of medicine in 1929. Porter used his degrees to teach biochemistry and bacteriology at Harvard and Radcliffe College until 1939. In addition to his teaching, Porter was working through the Harvard Biology Department conducting numerous studies. By 1939, whatever attraction there had been to biochemistry diminished and Porter turned his energies back to photography. Determined to transform bird photography from less-than-professional reportage to art, Porter became involved with the Eastman Kodak company. Porter was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships in 1941 and again in 1946 to finance experiments with Kodachrome photographya new venture for Kodak. He believed that by using the new color film, the photographer could provide a more sensitive interpretation of the subject.

Finally achieving success with color film, Porter produced a number of bird photography publications, including a photo-essay pairing his photos with specific Thoreau excerpts. The book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, was published by the Sierra Club . Porter produced subsequent books with the organization (Baja CaliforniaThe Geography of Hope and The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado ), and lateruntil 1971served on the Sierra Club's Board of Directors.

While Porter's photography took him to locations throughout the world (Greece, Iceland, Turkey, and the Galapagos Islands), his most brilliant work came from his travels in eleven of the United States. Birds of AmericaA Personal Selection was the result of his trip and became one of his best-known books. It combines rich, full-color photographs with anecdotal notes detailing his trials and tribulations in taking them. Porter's other publications include GalapagosThe Flow of Wilderness, Antarctica, and Intimate Landscapes.

Porter's one-man exhibits have appeared in some of the most influential art institutes and museums in the United States, among them: the George Eastman House, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stielglitz's An American Place. He maintained membership in several organizations including Advocates for the Arts, American Civil Liberties Union, American Ornithologists' Union, and the Audubon Society.

Porter died in November 1990 in New Mexico following a heart attack; he had also suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease.

[Kimberley A. Peterson ]



Porter, Eliot. Eliot Porter's Southwest. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.

. Nature's Chaos. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.


"Eliot Porter: For More Than 50 Years, This Master of Color and Light Portrayed and Idealized the American Landscape." Life 14 (February 1991): 8085.

Henry, G. "Eliot Porter." ARTnews 89 (Summer 1990): 178.

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Porter, Eliot Furness (1901 – 1990) American Photographer

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