I/Eye: On Photography

Rescuing Eliot Porter: Down the Colorado

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on August 8, 2011
Cloud Formations and Moon After Sunset, Tesuque, New Mexico, July 1958

Cloud Formations and Moon After Sunset, Tesuque, New Mexico, July 1958

A friend encountered a heap of books on a curb, and pulled out Down the Colorado, an abridged edition of John Wesley Powell’s diary of exploration of the Colorado River in 1869, republished by Dutton exactly 100 years later with photographs by Eliot Porter. One gets a sense from this volume of the tonal range of Porter’s famed dye transfer prints. I’d love to see them in the flesh. The photos shown here aren’t reproduced in the book — they’re part of the Porter archive at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, which offers an extensive online gallery of his work.

Cottonwood Tree in Alcove, Wilson Canyon, Utah, September 21, 1965

Cottonwood Tree in Alcove, Wilson Canyon, Utah, September 21, 1965

There’s a lot to see here, including sequential examples that show the flexibility and delicacy of the dye transfer process in various print interpretations of the same image: a redbud tree in Red River Gorge, Kentucky, for instance; see the first of the two here and then compare with this version. A detailed (sobering!) description of the printing technique is given here, and you can see what rolling a print looks like on Jim Browning’s site (photos by Neil Murray).

Waterpocket Fold, Utah, August 19, 1963

Waterpocket Fold, Utah, August 19, 1963

On the memorialization of Powell, the one-armed explorer, by the eponymous Lake Powell (Utah) created in 1963 by the damming of Glen Canyon, Porter writes in the epilogue (with a barely controlled fury):

To the motorboatist the lake presents superb opportunities for racing about in his high-powered craft. He can speed for hundreds of miles from gasoline pump to gasoline pump with hardly more than a glance at the half-submerged tapestried sandstone walls. When boredom overtakes him he can break the monotony with water skiing, an activity that too soon palls. Always seeking new artificial thrills to lessen the drag of time, he roars into narrow, flooded tributary canyons, side-slipping around the tight S-curves at thirty miles an hour.

Not long ago one could walk in these side canyons beside reflecting pools upon a smoothed-out sandstone floor in an atmosphere aglow with filtered sun and sky. The boatman, to whom the undammed river could once have provided wondrous experiences, knows nothing of these lost glories, regrets them not, and belittles them in his ignorance. Nowhere in the world are these drowned canyons duplicated. In place of infinite variety, awesome convolutions, mysterious and secret recesses, glowing painted walls and golden streams, we have received in exchange a featureless sheet of water…. The plunging cliffs are licked by the wake of passing boats reflected from wall to wall.

The people of Texas are lucky to have this impressive collection of photographs in their state; the rest of us are lucky that the National Endowment for the Humanities still has (had?) some pennies to spend in support of projects like this online gallery of Porter’s work.

4 Responses

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  1. Jerry Downs said, on August 9, 2011 at 4:39 am

    What a great find! And such a treat to see again. Thanks Sheila!

  2. George LeChat said, on August 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    There may be some question as to whether Porter should be rescued.

  3. richard L. said, on August 16, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I wonder what is meant by “secondary” work.

    • Sheila Newbery said, on August 16, 2011 at 9:49 pm

      The Amon Carter uses the term ‘secondary color work’ to designate work that wasn’t occasioned by a book project.


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