Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Nature's Chaos

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"The images . . . are mostly details of nature which emphasize how nature's apparent disorder can be reduced to aesthetically stimulating fragments."
--Eliot Porter, Nature's Chaos, 1990


California Buckeye Along Redwood Creek

I finally found an Eliot Porter book that at least comes close to doing justice to his photographs (the public library had a first edition). It's called Nature's Chaos (NY Times review) and features Porter's photography accompanied by the writing of James Gleick, author of Chaos: Making a New Science (1987). Porter had been fascinated by Gleick's book and was inspired to spend the last days of his life (he died in 1990) on one last photography project.

I can see how Porter, who had a scientific bent (he began his career as a biochemical researcher at Harvard University), took such an interest in Gleick's book. I remember being excited about the book myself when it came out, and I'm definitely no scientist. 

Chaos seems like such an unlikely subject for a photographer. We tend to look for something simple and graphic, something with a clear subject that grabs our attention and stands apart from its background. Indeed, that's the key to our usual aesthetic in nature photography. What I loved about Nature's Chaos was Porter's genius for creating beautiful compositions from a chaotic scene. Much of his success for me is due the details so clearly visible in the images captured with his large format camera. With the details rendered so clearly, my eyes comfortably roam over the larger compositional elements -- the lines and shapes -- and gradually transition into the finest surrounding textural details.

Porter didn't make new photographs to illustrate the book. He pulled the images from his collection after being inspired by the "new science." As I was looking through the Mt. Tam images in my "October" folder I came across the photo above of the California buckeye with dozens of large nuts dangling from a now-leafless tree. Although I shot that image in October 2004, I still remember being charmed by the scene and thinking it was going to be impossible to photograph. I shot a frame anyway.

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