Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Brothers Porter - Masters in Two Media

Eliot Porter

Fairfield Porter

You would think it ought to be true that intellectual or artistic aptitude runs in families, and there is some truth in this, but it is really much less likely that siblings of talented or innovative figures compete at an equal level. An interesting exception to this is the case of the brothers Porter, Eliot Porter [1901-1990], a pioneer in the making of color photographic documentation of nature (landscape) and animals in nature (primarily birds); and Fairfield Porter [1907-1975], a landscape and figure painter who developed an individual style which has steadily grown in popularity and regard.

Both brothers attended Harvard University, Eliot eventually taking a doctoral degree in medicine, and Fairfield majoring in fine art. Growing up within a socially and intellectually enlightened and progressive household obviously influenced them to pursue professional careers. Their father, real estate tycoon James Foster Porter, a biologist, architect and nature enthusiast, instilled in his children an interest in and appreciation of nature. In 1910, he purchased Great Spruce Head Island, Penobscot Bay, Maine, which became the family vacation home, and eventually the part-time, seasonal residence for both brothers. Fairfield inherited the big family house after their father died, and lived there on and off with his extended family for the rest of his life. 1

Eliot began as a scientist, and it was only after years of work in his field, that he became persuaded--after having met Stieglitz, and mounting a couple of successful exhibitions of his work, that he decided, finally, the month his father died (July 1939)--to abandon medicine and take up art photography full-time. Quite a career change for a man in his position, at the age of 37! Perhaps it was his second marriage, in 1936, to a painter, and his show at An American Place, in 1938--or, pray tell, an inheritance?--that convinced him that his true vocation lay outside of science.

Fairfield's career, meanwhile, followed a predictable trajectory, with a long apprenticeship which included European travel and study in France, Spain and Italy, involvement in Leftist publications during the 1930's, study of anatomy and mechanical drawing, alternative pigments, etc. But it wasn't until the early 1950's and his association with the poets Ashbery, Schuyler, Koch and O'Hara, along with the painters Alex Katz, Bob Dash, Jane Freilicher, Neil Welliver, Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan that his work began to take off. Perhaps it was his social consciousness, or perhaps his some clinical approach to the technical aspects of his work, but he seems to have convinced himself that Abstract Expressionism was a dead-end, at least for his own purposes, and he never underwent the descent into non-figurative meditation that overwhelmed the development of painting during the post-War period. Mostly influenced by Bonnard, Vuillard, or early Matisse, he came to prefer the straightforward depiction of the life of his family, the scenes around his neighborhood in Southampton, and at the Great Spruce Head family compound. The paintings of his mature period [1950-1975] have a casual, quiet, almost vacation-like air, a retreat both from the static intrusions of the city, and the contradictions and contentions of conflicted aesthetic opinion. They exude a clarity and settled domesticity which floats inside a kind of idealized vacancy. Their aura of privileged seclusion and freedom from the necessities of gainful striving feel innocent and relaxed. Everything--objects, scenes, perspectives, spaces, light, times of day, visitors--seems to have a Sunday-afternoon mood, a sort of picnic quality, a purity and vividness beyond care.

Eliot's earliest work, done in straight black and white sheet-film emulsions with small or medium sized view cameras, was notable for the clarity and finish of his technique, but it was his naturalist's eye that concentrated primarily on bird life, that led to his first professional successes in photography. Others--Adams, Weston, Strand--would carve out important territory in the monochromatic landscape tradition, but Eliot Porter had other fish to fry. An early advocate of color in photography, he mastered the Dye transfer process--which involves the application of three successive stages of primary color dyes--but which allows for a greater range and fine-tuning of the color spectrum than any other chemical print process--greater even than the computer ink-jet printing technology.

Though EP's work with birds was probably the reason for his early recognition as a photographic documentarian, it was his landscape work, which we associate with his books with the Sierra Club and the New York Graphic Society (Little, Brown & Co.) that he is clearly most associated in the public mind. But in his later life, his work was seen and acclaimed in its wider, purely aesthetic aspects. In In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1962, his general landscape studies comprised an early attempt to unite aesthetic impressions of nature to a holistic-environmental preservationist agenda, and the book proved to be a popular title for decades, initiating a series of titles in the same mode over the years, many by EP himself. As the technology of color printing improved throughout the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's, it became obvious that he was not just a nature-lover, but, foremost, a talented artist with a highly personal and specific style. His monographs on Greece, Mexico, Iceland, Egypt, the Galapagos, Baja California, New England, as well as various places in the Southwest where he eventually lived, showed that his sense of texture and tone and composition could be applied with equal effectiveness to almost any subject-matter. He moved beyond the bland conceptions of nature that had characterized the first wave of landscape photographers--led by Adams, whose "empty" visions, offered viewers "heroic" idealizations of "big" earth-tropes derived from an over-romanticized version of man's place in the universe, the worshipper of "shrines"--to focus on the dense undergrowths, the busy textures of matter, the mysterious or intimate details of things. As a pioneer of coloristic effects, he was not drawn into the splashy "drenched" over-saturated effects of later color calendar practitioners such as David Muench. EP's prints are often very delicately grey, with hints and subtle undertones of dull pastels among matrices of branches or two-dimensional strata. His book Intimate Landscapes [New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979], for instance, is filled with many such quiet examples, often in New England in a Wintry grey. EP could be both inspiring, and intriguing in his work. His quiet landscape compositions often seem like the visual counterparts to Thoreauvian meditations.

It's interesting to compare the work of the two brothers, as perhaps different expressions of a related thematic bent. For both, it was a sense of the genuine--in nature, primarily for Eliot--in domestic settings for Fairfield--which gave their work a characteristic warmth and clarity. If in Fairfield's canvases, daily life could be reported with a calm, optimistic assurance; in Eliot's prints nature presents as a complex of dense facts, matter organized into organic wholes, all the pieces and fragments built up and fixed by natural forces and the long, slow inevitable, unfolding pattern of living descent--vital, precious, yet vulnerable. The remoteness and separation of Great Spruce Head Island compound, the ultimate aesthetic "retreat" for each, symbolized the imaginative separation from, on the one hand, the "dirty" life of the city, of turmoil and conflict and diverging taste(s), and on the other, the possibility of a crucible of preservation of intimate nature from despoilment and exploitation. That FP should have repudiated pure
abstraction for the idealized beautification of daily life or domesticated nature (in his paintings), seems consistent with his brother's interest in the nesting habits of birds, or the comforting wildness of unspoiled landscape. Both brothers were interested in refining the potential range of the color scale--Fairfield mixed his own pigments from a special formula--Eliot perfected the Dye transfer process--in each case, to vivify, and more accurately report the effects of real life, or real visionary impressions.

One of the ironies in the history of technology has been how changing methods of materials have influenced how we see, and how we think to represent what we want to show. Eliot Porter entered the field of photography just as it was beginning to attain the status of a serious art form, of being accepted by the art community as a viable medium, worthy of attention and valuation. At the same time, the technology of photographic processes was going through a transformation which would eventually yield high resolution color images, within the capacity of the man on the street. During this transitional period, the only way to approximate the complexity and range of actual color representation was a highly demanding craft which seems in retrospect very much in keeping with the thematic content of EP's sense of the equivalent complexity of his subject matter. The subtle print quality in Intimate Landscapes was only attainable through this process, a process which, now, 50 years later, seems superfluous, given the development of software imaging and high resolution printing apparati. This may indeed be an illusion, just as the older technologies of photo-gravure strike many people as superior to some of the new laser-scan techniques, or vinyl records seem to retain qualities of fidelity to original recordings that later digital technologies may lack.

Meanwhile, the spirit of progressive social duty inherent in the work of both artists, who grew up in an enlightened, privileged household--close, intimate and familiar for Fairfield--preservationist, "wild" and universal for Eliot--seems a common theme across the panorama of cultural preoccupations during the post-War period. They're like two halves of a social order with their combined interests in close social group cohesion, an intense curiosity in, and concern for nature and the larger contexts of the planet itself.

As a paradigm of the old class order of an enlightened aristocracy, in which public service (or an open commitment to social improvement) is joined to a pursuit of technological solutions, along with an aesthetic interest in phenomena as such, the Brothers Porter present as a fascinating late (decadent) instance of a disappearing institution. The work of both brothers is fully realized, impressive and even nostalgic. The order of life and progress which made their careers possible and necessary, was to some degree a component in the work itself of each. Just as FP's work is like an ode to the semi-rural existence of a way of life of available to only a small fraction of the population, EP's work salvages the fast-disappearing evidence of the wildness and beauty of the natural world. Certainly life is never as attractive or ennobling as it may seem in a Porter painting; and the loveliness of the natural world in a Porter photograph isn't nearly as inspiring or heart-warming as we tend to feel it is, once its harshness is factored in.


1. An interesting subtext to the Porter saga is the case of poet James Schuyler, who seems to have been unofficially "adopted" by the Fairfield Porter family, spending much of his time at their residence over the decades, frequently writing poems inspired by the countryside surrounding their homes. After Fairfield's death in 1975, things became more difficult for Schuyler, as he was forced to live alone in a New York apartment. This is a story in itself.

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