I am looking at a photograph by Eliot Porter taken in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. The color image was part of a project commissioned by Audubon Magazine in 1968 in a successful effort to save the 29,000-acre wilderness area from a proposed flood-control dam that would have submerged the gorge. Now protected as part of the federal government’s National Wild and Scenic River system, this 19-mile stretch of the Red River cuts through the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau, with deep chasms and sheer cliffs that look out onto spectacular vistas. However, Porter’s photograph offers no hint of any of this. This particular picture was taken of a towering stand of trees in early spring, before the branches had been completely obscured by leaves. At the center of the photograph is a redbud tree, just beginning to sprout its pale pink blossoms. All around it are much taller trees with their delicate tracery of branches and blossoms disappearing into a blue haze. The image is exquisite.
Trained as a physician, Porter worked for ten years as a medical researcher at Harvard in the 1930s before deciding to dedicate himself to photography full-time. He was by then already established as a leading nature photographer, capped by a one-person show at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery in New York. Almost immediately thereafter he began experimenting with color, which was unheard of among serious photographers at the time. Color film was too grainy to produce satisfactory results when images were enlarged, and the colors lacked the tonal range and subtlety of black-and-white films. However, working with a large-format camera and the new Kodachrome color transparency film, Porter began using a painstaking dye-transfer development process that enabled him to achieve dramatically improved results. Still, decades elapsed before the Metropolitan Museum of Art signaled acceptance of color photography with a solo exhibition of Porter’s work in 1980.
Photography itself had long struggled to gain acceptance as a serious artistic discipline. Even today there is still a residual sentiment that the medium is largely technical, requiring at best only skilled craftsmen to point and shoot the camera. This notion is compounded by the wide availability of sophisticated digital cameras with automatic settings that enable any reasonably competent person to take pictures that are technically quite good. However, I would wager that you could arm a reasonably competent person with the best digital equipment in the world and send him out to retrace Eliot Porter’s steps, and he would not produce a single memorable image because he does not have Porter’s eye.
With Porter and other great photographers, you are struck by the sense that they see the world as God sees it. This is not as grandiose as it sounds, since I think we all come into the world seeing as God sees. Most of us, however, eventually lose the sense of wonder we had when everything was still new to us. What sets the artist apart is his ability to see even the ordinary as if for the first time. It hardly matters whether the subject is the Red River Gorge or one’s own back yard. As the naturalist John Muir once put it, “This is still the morning of creation.”
Quantum physicists will tell you that the act of seeing is not incidental to creation. At the subatomic level, particles exist only as potentialities until they assume a definite state through empirical observation. The physicist John Wheeler theorized that we live in a “participatory universe” in which consciousness is not a bystander to physical reality but is an essential element in its formation. In a sense, you could say that the world comes into being because we are here to witness it. It matters a great deal then whether or not we are able to see the world as God sees it, since the kingdom of God is essentially in the eye of the beholder.
John Muir, Travels in Alaska