PRINT September 2014


THE PARADOX OF ELIOT PORTER’S nature photography is the paradox of postwar nature itself: nature at once more and less real than it had been before, more proximate and farther away, more readily fathomable and yet harder to see without state-of-the-art optical prosthetics. Foregoing sweeping landscapes for teeming microcosms, Porter—whose photographs have recently caught the attention of new generations of viewers at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the 2013 Venice Biennale, among other venues—created hyperdetailed images that push verisimilitude past its limits, toward the registers of pop culture, kitsch, and technology. Here, historian JIMENA CANALES assesses the work of an artist who, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, envisioned a biosphere in which there is no such thing as unspoiled wilderness, delving into the contradictions of nature photography in the Anthropocene.

WHAT IS A PHOTOGRAPH by Eliot Porter a photograph of? The standard response to that question would be nature, but the more one contemplates the extraordinary color photographs Porter began taking in the late 1930s, the less convincing that answer seems. Take Porter’s image of russet leaves floating gently on ultramarine water, which appears in his 1962 book In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World. Beautiful as it is, there is something about it that feels insistently familiar, even clichéd. It looks as if it could have been taken by anyone, like a postcard image or a stock photograph. What commands our attention most powerfully, in fact, are those saturated oranges and blues, captured in Kodachrome.

Nature’s colors have been painstakingly depicted by painters since ancient times, but in the ’30s, with the development of color photography, the hues of forests and flowers, deserts and

to keep reading

Artforum print subscribers have full access to this article. Please sign in below.

Not registered for Register here.

SUBSCRIBE NOW and save up to 65% off the newsstand price for full online access to this issue and our archive.

Order the PRINT EDITION of the September 2014 issue for $17 or the ONLINE EDITION for $5.99.

* This rate applies to U.S. domestic subscriptions.