PORTLAND, Maine — Almost every photograph is about the external world, yet the work of few photographers has helped change that world. Eliot Porter helped alter both the medium and society. The extent of those changes now obscures the extent of his influence. “Eliot Porter’s Nature,” a small and highly appealing show that runs at the Portland Museum of Art through March 18, is a welcome reminder of just how exacting an artist he was.
Porter (1901-1990) helped inspire the environmental movement of the ’60s with his best-known book, “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.” Published in 1962, the same year as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” it remains in print and has sold more than a million copies. Porter’s luminous color photographs of the natural world both illustrate and expand upon texts from Henry David Thoreau.
The key word, so far as photographic history goes, is “color.” Color photography is nearly as old as the medium. Yet even as late as the 1960s, color processes remained either unstable, chromatically dodgy, or both. To compensate for those flaws cost a lot of money. This restricted use of color film to people taking snapshots, where exactitude didn’t much matter, or commercial uses, such as advertising, fashion, or glossy journalism, where cost was simply a business expense. Serious photography belonged in black and white.
There were exceptions: Paul Outerbridge, Ernst Haas, even Walker Evans, who did some fine color work for Fortune magazine. The one art photographer given a complete pass was Porter: because of his subject matter, and how scrupulously he used color in its service.
A photo like “Hawkweed in Meadow, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine” or “Bracken and Hawkweed, Michigan” (with its scattering of red within a vista of green) are unthinkable in black and white. Not just would their beauty be radically diminished, but so would the accuracy of their rendering of vegetation.
Related to Porter’s interest in color was his interest in texture. Both share a reliance on exquisite gradation. Such gradations are jaw-droppingly evident in a picture here of a redbud tree in bloom and another of foxtail grass. Light, as captured by a camera, can range from the very coarse to the very delicate. With Porter, delicacy was paramount.
A nice curatorial touch highlights that delicacy. Just outside the show, there are two very large photographs: a James Welling plant study and one of Clifford Ross’s wave pictures. Together they provide an orchestral overture to Porter’s chamber music al fresco. Scale is not to be confused with strength. Porter’s pictures are anything but overpowered.
Another nice hanging touch is familial. “Eliot Porter’s Nature” includes three photographs of Great Spruce Head Island. Around the corner is a painting by his brother, Fairfield Porter, of, yes, Great Spruce Head Island.
Before Eliot Porter, nature photography in America was largely associated with landscape. This made sense. The topography of the American West was so spectacular, even otherworldly, that believing really did require seeing, even if only through a lens. More practically, landscape lent itself so well to black and white. The means of production helped determine the choice of subject.
Where Ansel Adams pursued geology by other means, Porter turned to botany. He didn’t ignore landscape. Among the 23 images in “Eliot Porter’s Nature” are several studies of canyons in the American Southwest. But what excites him in, say, “White Flowers in Black Ash Cliff” — with its contrast of light and dark and fingertip perfection of detail — is the organic, not the mineral. What drove his art was the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
Another photograph shows a water-streaked canyon wall in Utah. It could be a cousin of color field painting. Yet that very resemblance underscores how unconcerned Porter was with aestheticizing the natural world. In his work, the beauty of nature is always intrinsic rather than subsidiary to human imagination. To take just one example: A photograph of a Mount Desert Island tidal marsh shows a stillness beyond imagining — but not beyond seeing, as Porter shows.
Besides the Southwest, there are photographs here from Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, four of the six New England states (sorry, Connecticut and Rhode Island), even the Galapagos. But location mattered far less to Porter than that which transcends any specific place: the natural life that spreads across the planet.
That natural life, as seen in “Eliot Porter’s Nature,” doesn’t extend beyond plant life. This makes nicely complementary “Modern Menagerie,” an ongoing installation on the museum’s fourth floor. It consists of various renderings of animal life: sculptures, paintings, ceramics. Standouts include Alex Katz’s “Black Cat on Orange Background,” Edwin F. Gamble’s drawing of a dowitcher, and, hanging from the ceiling by the stairs, Christopher Patch’s papier-mâché flock of migratory birds.
The heart of the installation is an 18-piece set of wood-and-metal sculptures by Bernard Langlais. They were commissioned for a fountain at the Samoset Resort, in Rockport, Maine, and later given to the museum. Langlais was having fun with everything from appearance (he used nails to represent a seal’s whiskers) to scale. Some of the birds are the size of a Shetland pony. Yet a pair of whales are no bigger than small bread loaves. All the pieces have a blocky, clunky amiability. Do not look for Eliot Porter delicacy. But do look. You will be charmed.
ELIOT PORTER’S NATURE
At Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through March 18 and open ended, respectively. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.