Eliot Porter and Las Vegas

One night a few weeks ago I learned that wife and son would not be home and I was faced with suddenly having a chunk of time dropped in my lap. Always saying, “If I only had more time to myself I could get so much done,” I welcomed the opportunity to get my office in order and tackled the large boxes that had come over from Canada a year ago. I was particularly interested in opening the boxes that contained my precious photo art book collection. Buried away in boxes in the corner were treasure troves of inspiring landscape and nature photography by some of my favourite photographers.

When at last I had opened and examined the contents of every single box, I reworked my bookshelf and stocked it with the books that gave me the greatest pleasure. Among the many titles were eight books by American landscape photographer, Eliot Porter (1901 – 1990). I had first come across Porter’s works in a book entitled The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado when I was searching for photography books of landscapes of the American southwest. Soon after, I found In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, Porter’s first book with the Sierra Club and the book that really launched his career. Other books turned up around the local libraries and it was at this time that many of Porter’s books came to be published, including his autobiography Eliot Porter, his photographs from Iceland, and his final book before his passing, Nature’s Chaos.

Eliot Porter spent the summers of his childhood on an island in Maine which his family owned. As a boy, he was first interested in photographing birds. He later began photographing nature and landscapes more. He became acquainted with Alfred Steiglitz and in December 1938 he was granted an exhibition at Steiglitz’s gallery “An American Place.” The success of his exhibition convinced him to give up his work in biochemistry and become a full-time photographer.

Over the next 24 years, Eliot Porter held his exhibitions and took assignments for the likes of the Audobon Society and sold his photographs to publishing houses and periodicals. His big break came when the Director of the Sierra Club, David Brower, had a chance to see his exhibition “The Seasons” with excerpts from Henry David Thoureau’s book Walden. The exhibition became Porter’s first book In Wildness is the Preservation of the World and the first of many titles that the Sierra Club would publish. As his career blossomed and reputation spread, Porter enjoyed rare opportunities to photograph Antarctica and China. As well, he traveled to Africa, Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, and many places across the United States. Many of his photographs made their way into books.

When Porter’s son, Johnathan gave him James Gleick’s book Chaos, Porter said that he felt as if all he had tried to capture in nature in his photographs seemed to be summed up by this new science of chaos theory. James Gleick was contacted and a book idea came together. Some time after, Porter passed away shortly before his 89th birthday. At least one other title has been published posthumously, a collection of his photographs of the Grand Canyon.

I always enjoyed Eliot Porter’s photography exactly because I felt he was very honest about representing nature on film just as one would expect to find it in real life. His photos were never about impossibly vivid lighting situations, shriekingly dynamic compositions, or unbelievable convergences of weather and light. His works show us just what nature is: simply complex, complexly simple, and beautiful for what it is as we find it. I spent my early years seeking out in the forests of my city scenes like the ones he had captured in Maine or in the Adirondack Mountains. When I gave my first slide presentation at a local Lutheran church, the pastor commented that my photographs showed the beauty of what could be found right under our noses. It was also thanks to Eliot Porter’s photographs that I wanted a larger format than 35mm and purchased a Pentax 6×7. Many of my early photographs with that camera bear resemblance to his works, I like to think.

I never made the time to travel south to the desert lands of the American southwest, the places that not only Eliot Porter but landscape photographers around the world come to explore through their lenses. The closest I came was in 2006 when a friend and I tentatively planned a ten-day excursion to the Grand Canyon and neighbouring canyons. My friend decided to spend his money on snowboarding and my parents invited me to stay with them in Hawaii for a week, and so the plan was scrapped.

Then came the news a few weeks ago that my sister was getting married in Las Vegas and my father and mother felt I should be there for the event. I agreed but had not the financial means of getting there. Of course, my most generous parents offered to pay for my ticket. How could I say no? I would see my only sister tie the knot with the only man that has ever lasted more than one Christmas with her, and in fact has lasted the last few years. That was something in itself! My parents did not fail to mention, however, that they would be visiting Bryce Canyon and that I was welcome to join them. Suddenly it seemed the impossible had become possible. I, the poor photographer living in Japan with barely the means to plan a summer hike in the Japan Alps, would have the opportunity to see for a day or two a little of the desert lands of America. Granted, it would likely be a day touring with my parents who are in their mid-seventies and perhaps a day on my own. I would have enough time to be introduced to canyons Bryce and Zion, and maybe the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas.

Now those Eliot Porter books are within easy reach on my shelf, and my 4×5 camera sits in my closet awaiting its next assignment. Sheet film stays cool in the refrigerator. Two days. I can’t expect much. But I know I will be in a personal piece of paradise when I step out onto that dry sand and rock, set up my tripod and camera, and for a moment believe I am experiencing the same thrill that Eliot Porter did every time he set his tripod down in the American southwest.

4 responses to “Eliot Porter and Las Vegas

  1. Many thanks for flagging up Eliot Porter, both on flickr and in this eloquent article. As a result, I’ve become the owner of three of his books. Suspect the style will work only in large format, but, be that as it may, the work is an inspiration, especially his Iceland book ….

  2. Project Hyakumeizan, didn’t you find those three books on your own? I love his Iceland book but my favourite is a book of his simply titled The West. I drove into Bellingham, Washington from my home across the border specifically to buy that book.

  3. Hello, Tsubakuro–

    Thanks for your comments about Eliot Porter, he has also been an inspiration to me. I hope you did make it to see and photograph Utah and Nevada!


    Mike O’Brien

  4. Thanks for reading, Mike. Yes, I made it and though time was short I did manage to get the 4×5 set up and pulled off a few decent shots of my own.

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