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Eliot Porter, Monument Valley, Utah, 1940, gelatin silver print, 7 1/4 x 9 1/2".

Eliot Porter, Monument Valley, Utah, 1940, gelatin silver print, 7 1/4 x 9 1/2".

Eliot Porter

Eliot Porter, Monument Valley, Utah, 1940, gelatin silver print, 7 1/4 x 9 1/2".

Eliot Porter was eleven years old when his parents gave him a box camera for Christmas. In the woods behind his house in Illinois, what most fascinated his boyhood imagination were weeds, wildflowers, insects, and birds. Starting then and for the rest of his life, he photographed bitterns, red-winged blackbirds, and marsh wrens, among other bird species. At twelve, Porter created moody pictures of majestic ospreys in Maine, dramatic studies in the mechanics of flight that capture the predatory fish hawk in muscular moments of taking off and landing. Finding the resulting images too muddy, however, he slowly began to refine his process. He tried a folding camera with a faster shutter speed. He bought a Leica. Eventually, at the behest of the photographers Ansel Adams (his first mentor) and Alfred Stieglitz (his first dealer), and under the influence of the painters Fairfield Porter (his younger brother) and Aline Kilham (his second wife), he mastered medium- and large-format cameras, experimented with color film, and constructed elaborate rigs with strobe lights and wooden watchtowers, which he built to observe his avian subjects in nature.

Birds were Porter’s first love, the subject of his first major museum show (“Birds in Color: Flashlight Photographs by Eliot Porter,” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943), and the topic of his exquisite book Birds of North America: A Personal Selection, an instant classic when it was published in 1972. It makes sense, then, that the resurgence of interest in Porter’s work over the past few years—spearheaded by Trisha Donnelly, who made a beautiful selection of his prints for her 2012 installment in the “Artist’s Choice” series at MoMA, and by Massimiliano Gioni, who included Porter in his exhibitions for the Gwangju Biennale in 2010 and the Venice Biennale in 2013—began with a tight focus on the bird pictures and is now broadening out to consider his landscapes, travelogues, and images of ancient and modern architecture.

This summer’s crisply curated show of thirty-two vintage prints at Paula Cooper included a roomful of lush, eye-popping portraits of warblers, sparrows, and sapsuckers, many of them pictured in nests and amid foliage while feeding their young or feasting on worms. That said, the exhibition began not with birds but with landscapes. A fine pairing just inside the entrance marked the shift in emphasis and established the show’s time frame. To the left hung the earliest image, a black-and-white print from the 1940s, showing the rippled textures of a southwestern valley, all abstract sand dunes and geometric rock forms. To the right hung the latest, a rich color print from the 1970s, showing fields of trees and tall grasses like stripes against a backdrop of rolling Colorado hills.

From there, the curator Jack Macrae, Porter’s longtime editor and publisher, worked his way clockwise around the space with works featuring some of the artist’s great but lesser-known subjects. Co-organized with the gallery’s registrar, Kristoffer Haynes, the exhibition passed through gorgeous tangles of driftwood (Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, 1968), enormous Grecian statues (Erectheum, 1967), and ancient Egyptian columns (Forecourt of Amenopnis III, Luxor, 1973), all of them playing with the relationship between figure and ground. Porter seems to delight in swapping the near for the far in his images, collapsing the spatial depth of vast, overwhelming vistas to consider a detail, a pattern, or a gesture of impeccable framing.

Throughout his career, Porter, who was born in 1901 and died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1990, slid seamlessly between the worlds of fine art and conservation. Just as he is considered one of the godfathers of color photography, he is also credited with helping to secure the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, after the Sierra Club distributed The Place No One Knew, his 1963 book on the disappearance of Glen Canyon beneath a man-made lake, to every member of Congress, galvanizing a movement to prevent the construction of hydroelectric dams that would have condemned the Grand Canyon to a similar fate. Somewhere in the middle ground, the wondrous nature of Porter’s images lies in their ambiguity, illuminating the borders that divide art, activism, and unassuming spirituality.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie