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Regarding the Land: Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Legacy of Eliot Porter

September 16, 2006 - January 7, 2007

 

The aesthetic of fine art meets the sentiment of environmental activism this fall at the Amon Carter Museum in a special exhibition that explores the drama and power of landscape photography as seen through the lenses of two of the art form's most important color artists. Opening September 16, 2006, Regarding the Land: Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Legacy of Eliot Porter will offer a rare opportunity to see together the work of these two internationally renowned fine art photographers who have also played key roles in focusing public attention on complex issues of environmental politics.

Eliot Porter (1901-1990) set the model and standard for color landscape photography in the 1950s and 1960s with lushly hued and delicately balanced close-ups of nature. His groundbreaking efforts led to the widespread acceptance of color photography as an artistic medium. Inspired by Porter's work, Robert Glenn Ketchum (b. 1947) took up color landscape photography in the early 1970s, and today he is widely recognized as Porter's successor. Like Porter before him, he has become a much heralded master at building broad political support through his photographs and books for cleaning up and protecting places of natural beauty and ecological importance, acknowledged by Audubon Magazine as one of 100 people "who shaped the environmental movement of the 20th century." Regarding the Land will explore the two artists' dedication to environmental causes, as well as the personal and professional influence that Porter had on Ketchum. The exhibition will also reveal their distinct differences and shed light on Ketchum's penchant for experimentation and boldly moving the conversation of color landscape photography in new directions.

"Despite the similarity of Porter's and Ketchum's ends, the underlying impetus of each artist's work is quite different," said John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the Carter. "Porter was at heart a scientist, albeit one with a remarkably imaginative and poetic eye. Ketchum, on the other hand, is at his core an artist. His photographs do not merely describe the world but are also tools for exploring how we see it."

Ketchum's passion for pushing the boundaries of landscape photography has evolved over time. At first, he directly challenged landscape conventions by greatly simplifying form and flattening space, while at the same time making stridently chaotic and oversized images. During the 1980s, he began contributing his large color photographs to support environmental causes, including images of industrial degradation in what would otherwise be pristine landscapes. By the 1990s, Ketchum was pushing the boundaries of expected color, light and texture. Today, Ketchum is exploring digital photography's ability to deliver prints of ever-expanding size.

Regarding the Land will take visitors through each of these transitions, revealing how Ketchum draws regularly from Porter as he takes color landscape photography in new directions. The show concludes with Ketchum's most dramatic efforts to test the limits of photographic depiction-eight highly detailed random-stitch silk embroidery translations of his photographs and one loom-woven interpretation. These incredible works, which range from two-sided table-top embroideries of impeccable detail to four-panel room screens measuring more than five feet in length, come from Ketchum's 20-year collaboration with the master embroiderers at China's premier Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 112-page catalogue published by the Amon Carter Museum. The book presents 75 of the exhibition's 80 works, mostly as full-color plates, and includes essays by Ketchum and Amon Carter Museum Senior Curator of Photographs John Rohrbach.

 

More About Eliot Porter

Eliot Porter grew up in Winnetka, Ill., a town north of Chicago. His father, James Foster Porter, introduced him to nature in the wooded surroundings in Illinois and later on Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, the family's summer home. Porter began taking pictures with a Kodak Brownie box camera when he was 11 years old, initially photographing birds around the two homes.

Inspired by a high school chemistry class, Porter studied biochemistry and bacteriology at Harvard University before receiving a degree in medicine from that university in 1929. He began his professional career as a medical researcher there, but soon found himself more interested in taking pictures than conducting laboratory experiments. In 1934 his brother, the painter Fairfield Porter, arranged for him to meet Alfred Stieglitz. Impressed with Porter's work, Stieglitz exhibited some of the artist's landscape photographs at his gallery An American Place in late 1938. Porter then decided to become a full-time artist.

Porter's love of photographing birds led him to become one of the first artist-photographers to take up color. In 1939, he took a selection of his best black-and-white bird photographs to Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of Roger Tory Peterson's successful A Field Guide to Birds (1934). The publisher appreciated the beauty of his prints, but pointed out that identifying his bird subjects would be much easier if the portraits were in color. Porter taught himself how to make bird portraits of such vivid and colorful beauty that he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and exhibitions at two of New York's most important venues, the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History.

Porter continued to photograph birds each spring through much of his life, but he gained most of his acclaim from the color landscape photographs he created during the rest of each year. These works, which he printed using the exacting dye transfer process, established a new model for viewing nature. His first book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962), presented a seasonal celebration of New England's woodlands paired with excerpts from the writings of naturalist Henry David Thoreau. It was completed only months after Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson's groundbreaking indictment of pesticides, and seemed to illustrate the world being lost to indiscriminate spraying of DDT. Published by the Sierra Club, the book's 11-by-14-inch size and Kromekote paper established award-winning benchmarks in design and printing; also enjoyed spectacular sales. Porter and Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower collaborated on five more books interweaving Porter's artistic photographs with similarly resonant texts to argue for preserving natural environments. These books, covering sites from the Glen Canyon to the Galápagos, transformed the club from a small, regionally oriented hiking club into a powerful international force.

By the time of his death in 1990, Porter had produced more than 7,500 masterful dye transfer color photographic prints of sites around the world and 25 books celebrating the colorful beauty of these locales. Today, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World has sold more than 1 million copies, and Porter's model of color landscape has become commonplace in popular magazines, wall calendars, and even in the work of contemporary fine art photographers.

 

More About Robert Glenn Ketchum

Robert Glenn Ketchum (b. 1947) grew up in Los Angeles. In 1966, he enrolled as an undergraduate at his neighborhood school, the University of California. At the time, he had more passion for surfing than academic study, but he dutifully put that love aside to begin following the pre-law path advocated by his parents.

By his sophomore year, however, he changed his major to design, which led him to UCLA's photography program. His teachers Edmund Teske and Robert Heinecken encouraged him to investigate photography as a tool for experimentation. He learned about solarization, negative manipulation and multiple printing, and he also made one-of-a-kind photographic books about the Sunset Boulevard rock scene.

It was around this time that Ketchum was given a copy of Eliot Porter's In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World . The book resonated with a richness and nuance of color that Ketchum had never before seen in print. He had also recently read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (1949). Together, these publications instilled in Ketchum a concern for the environment, and he became active in various national environmental groups. After graduating from UCLA with a design degree in 1970, Ketchum went to Sun Valley, Idaho. There he began a series of 35mm photographs that played head on with abstraction and scale, using snow as a backdrop for trees and mountains. He ultimately self-published this work as the portfolio Winters, 1970-1980 .

Ketchum's photographs, publications and other projects took varied form over the ensuing years. Cottonwood Thicket (1972) featured his color photographs of nondescript thickets, dense forests and grasses. His photographs of the color, form and texture of the woodlands up and down the East Coast, which he called anti-landscapes, were published in Order from Chaos (1983).

In 1982, he was commissioned by the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund to photograph along the Hudson River. He could photograph whatever he liked, and his resulting images would be used to build broad public support for cleaning up the Hudson River Valley. During this project, he photographed the rolling hills and deciduous forests in constantly changing light. He also addressed the region's trash-filled rail yards, dilapidated town docks, interstate highways and suburban development by including, rather than editing out, these signs of human intrusion. When the Wallace Fund's director saw some of these images, he encouraged Ketchum to continue working in this vein and approached Michael Hoffman at Aperture about publishing the Hudson River works. The resulting volume, The Hudson River and the Highlands (1985), turned out to play an important role in the Hudson River cleanup campaign.

Ketchum embarked on similar projects in southeastern Alaska and the Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, bringing attention to environmental issues with his photographic explorations of color, texture and light. He became immersed in these specific causes, but retained his passion for more open-ended photographic experimentation. In 1987, he began a three-year residence at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah. Here, he worked with no political agenda but captured images of the spectacular surrounding landscape where the color and light were particularly saturated and dramatic during the autumn months.

By the late 1980s, Ketchum had become a leading environmental artist. In 1989, the Sierra Club recognized him with its Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography. Two years later he received the Global 500 Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award from the United Nations. He was conducting workshops for the Nature Conservancy and receiving commissions to photograph areas of ecological significance around Carmel Valley on the outskirts of the national parks. He later returned to Alaska, working there and across the Northwest Passage to Greenland, where he created abstract images from the air.

By the early 1990s, Ketchum was also gaining momentum with an inventive new art form that had interested him for years-textile interpretations of photographs. After extensive negotiations, he began working with the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute (SERI) in Suzhou, China. With the first project, the institute's master embroiderers translated Ketchum's Winters portfolio image Snowfall into a random-stitch silk embroidery. While the project required the embroiderers to depart in significant ways from their standard practices, the resulting 12-by-18-inch double-sized table screen translated the photograph with remarkable fidelity and grace. During the past 25 years, Ketchum has worked with the embroiderers at SERI as they have created increasingly complex renderings of many of his photographs. Today, contemporary Chinese artists, taking notice of what Ketchum and SERI have achieved together, have approached SERI about collaborating in similar ways.

Ketchum is a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a Lifetime Trustee of the Alaska Conservation Foundation. He has also received the Robert O. Easton Award for Environmental Stewardship and served for 15 years as curator of photography for the National Park Foundation.


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