According to legend, when asked "Why birds?" photographer Eliot Porter replied as if it were obvious: "Because they fly."
But wait! Don't dismiss these as "bird photos." First, it helps to know just how difficult it is to capture a bird in flight — especially on film. It's also good to know how special it was to be photographing in color in the 1940s, and how onerous it is to make one's own dye-transfer prints.
Considered an artist by his contemporaries, Porter's photographs have been a bit pigeonholed, if you'll pardon the pun, into the genre of naturalist photography. Not that there's anything wrong with that — but there is so much more to it.
Porter's bird images are at the heart of a new show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by guest artist Trisha Donnelly. She said finding the photos was like love at first sight.
"[There] are times when you see things that have such a clear and distinct force," she says on the phone, "it's almost like how you don't wake up until you're supposed to, no matter how many alarms you set."
Porter was raised near Chicago in a family with art and science in its veins. His father was an architect and natural history enthusiast; his brother, Fairfield Porter, was a realist painter.
Though he picked up his first camera at a young age, Eliot Porter didn't devote himself to photography until after he had already graduated from Harvard Medical School and established a career in biochemical research.
But what makes these photos extra special is that Porter was photographing at a time (decades ago) when his vision was bigger and better than his equipment could capture. Because he was shooting with slow-speed Kodachrome and a large-format camera, he had to wait for hours for a bird to come to him. "He would stare at trees for an impossible amount of human time," says Donnelly.
She says he was obsessed with the microscopic and the universal at once, ideas of chaos and infinity.
"I feel like you can sense that he knew that the photographic was kind of an entire practice," she says. And she describes his birds as "these tiny, dynamic, electric, totally awake and live creatures that are not at all in static form because his practice was never static around them."
Time is an interesting thing in these photos, in that they totally defy it.
Not convinced? That's OK, she says; her friends are also sick of hearing her gush about birds.
"There are some things you just can't explain the attraction to. Something like Eliot Porter — it's good if it flies under the radar." As it were.