An amateur photographer since childhood, when he photographed the Great Spruce Head Island owned by his family, Porter earned degrees in chemical engineering and medicine, and worked as a biochemical researcher at Harvard University. Around 1930 he was introduced toAnsel Adams by a friend of the family and to Alfred Stieglitz by his brother Fairfield Porter. Stieglitz continued to critique Porter’s black and white work, now taken with a small Linhof view camera-In 1938, Stieglitz showed Porter’s work in his New York City gallery. The exhibit’s success prompted Porter to leave Harvard and pursue photography full-time In the 1940s, he began working in color with Eastman Kodak‘s new dye transfer process, a technique Porter would use his entire career.He was also a friend of Stieglitz’s wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who accompanied him on several camping expeditions including a rough raft trip down the Colorado River in 1961.
Porter’s reputation increased following the publication of his 1962 book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World Published by the Sierra Club, the book featured Porter’s color nature studies of the New England woods and quotes by Henry David Thoreau. A best-seller, several editions of the book have been printed. Porter served as a director of the Sierra Club from 1965 to 1971.
Porter traveled extensively to photograph ecologically important and culturally significant places. He published books of photographs from Glen Canyon in Utah, Maine, Baja California,Galápagos Islands, Antarctica, East Africa, and Iceland. Cultural studies included Mexico, Egypt, China, Czechoslovakia, and ancient Greek sites.
James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) caused Porter to reexamine his work in the context of chaos theory. They collaborated on a project published in 1990 asNature’s Chaos, which combined his photographs with a new essay by Gleick. Porter died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1990 and bequeathed his personal archive to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.