Although Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston stand large in the pantheon of great twentieth-century fine-art photographers, nature photographers might certainly reserve the prime spot for Eliot Porter. Before Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting there was Porter, photographing the natural world in color.
As a book, "In the Realm of Nature" seems a bit curious. It would appear to be a catalog of a show that occurred at the Getty Museum, except that it follows the show by more than six years. The book is a broad cross section of the artist's work, starting with some of the early black and white pictures he took as a young man and proceeding to the wonderful landscapes and bird pictures taken with the earliest color materials available. It seems a retrospective of his work, and so, while his fans will find nothing new here, it does gather his greatest work under one cover. Here are the pictures he took of the western wilderness, first used by the Sierra Club in its fight against the Glen Canyon Dam, and then more widely published as a celebration of the natural world.
Modern photographers will see how technology affects the image aesthetic. In his bird images, because of the available film's low ISO, Porter was required to use huge banks of flash bulbs to capture flight images. This resulted in a huge fall off in light in the backgrounds to almost complete black. Today's photographers can capture similar images without using any flash, resulting in brighter, more realistic backgrounds. Yet long before Arthur Morris, there was Elliot Porter.
His landscapes also appeal to a slightly different aesthetic then the other art photographers of his day, and indeed, today. For artists like White and Weston, the image was all about form, whereas for the most part, Porter is usually concerned that the form explicate the content. (This is not to say that Porter could not occasionally become absorbed with form; the photographs of lichens growing on rocks certainly are derived from the aesthetics of the abstract expressionists.)
His works also differ from modern nature photography in that today's photography often works to direct our attention to the artist's vision. Porter, using deep focus, frequently presented us with complex patterns of trees and branches, leaving it to the observer to work out what the picture is about.
The essay accompanying the images is mostly biographical, with little concern for criticism, although Martineau is at pains to distinguish Porter's color usage from that of photographers William Eggleston and Stephen Shore who seemed to be concerned with color as a form without much regard for content.
The printing of the images appears to be good, although with the passage of time the colors in the original photographs have probably changed. I compared an image in the book to an actual Porter image, and I noticed a slight variation in luminosity. (On a few occasions, I questioned the accuracy of the white balance in some images, but that may have been due as much to Porter's artistic decisions as to my 21st century expectations.) I was not concerned about this since the images in the book are still quite wonderful.
Unless one already has a large collection of Porter books, this one should certainly be in the library of anyone who is concerned with the development of nature photography.