What happens when a hobby becomes a passion, the passion becomes an obsession, the obsession becomes a career, and the career changes the world?

In the case of Eliot Porter, the result was a body of work numbering 100,000 photographic images, 29 published books, dozens of exhibitions and many projects left unfinished when he died in 1990, a month shy of his 89th birthday. A career that had its genesis in 1912 with a boy playing outside with his Christmas gift – a new Brownie box camera – ended with incalculable influence on the public’s awareness of the beauty and fragility of our natural environment. Porter’s metamorphosis from schoolboy to influential conservationist is the subject of an exhibition currently on view at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Born into a well-to-do family in 1901, Porter grew up in Winnetka, Illinois and summered at the family’s island in Maine. At Harvard University he earned a degree in chemical engineering in 1923, and a degree in medicine in 1929. Porter held a teaching position at Harvard and worked as a bacteriologist, but pursued photography as a serious hobby. His brother, the painter Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), introduced him to Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, who gave Porter a solo exhibition in 1938 at his famous New York gallery, An American Place.

The exhibition convinced Porter to resign from academia and pursue his passion full-time. He taught himself color photography, which he championed at a time when most serious art photographers were working in black and white. In 1946, Porter moved just north of Santa Fe to Tesuque, New Mexico, which remained his base for a lifetime of travels.

Porter had a keen interest, dating from his boyhood, for photographing birds. In response to what he thought was the low quality of avian imagery, Porter decided in the late 1930s to “raise bird photography above the level of reportage, to transform it into an art.”

To accomplish this, Porter invented the first stop-action system for photographing the winged creatures. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941 to photograph numerous North American bird species. Porter went to elaborate lengths to view nests without disturbing them, even building wooden towers next to the occupied tree, hauling his cameras and lights up to sometimes dizzying heights.

In his 1966 book, “Summer Island: Penobscot Country,” Porter described his movements on the trail that would be recognizable to any birdwatcher today. He wrote, “The nest finder must go out into the fields and woods with his wits sharpened to a razor’s edge, with all his senses tuned to their highest pitch, and with his mind free from the distractions and preoccupations that burden the society he has temporarily left behind…I wandered through the forests and bogs and alder thickets from dawn to dark, day after day, and summer after summer, listening and searching, tense as a taut wire for the slightest vibration and flick of movement. Unaware of time, I moved through the day without plan or design, following trails and random leads laid out by nature.”

In 1962, the Sierra Club published Porter’s work in a landmark book, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World,” which established the Sierra Club’s international reputation as a publisher of fine books. Highly acclaimed, it was followed in 1963 with “The Place No One Knew, Glen Canyon on the Colorado.” Although it was too late to prevent construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, which is now seen to be problematic, this book prompted federal review of all reclamation projects on western rivers. It was also a catalyst for the 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act, which had been stalled in Congress for the previous eight years.

Porter once wrote, “It has been said that wilderness is a luxury, a commodity that man will be forced to dispense with as his occupancy of the earth approaches saturation. If this happens, he is finished. Wilderness must be preserved; it is a spiritual necessity. Even though few may visit wilderness areas they remain an open back door, a safety valve for those who never enter them.”

Porter’s message is eerily prescient to the situation found on our local trails today. Hikers and equestrians, out walking the trails at a slow pace, are threatened by speeding mountain bikers wearing full body armor. The Santa Barbara front country trails are literally the back door to our adjoining wilderness area, Los Padres National Forest. The large numbers of cars that can be counted at each trailhead every weekend attest to the fact that these trails are indeed a safety valve for those who need to escape the mechanized, fast-paced rigors of the modern world.

It seems our local wilderness has become a commodity, to be divvied up between traditional trail users and those who favor mechanized vehicles. When trail user “conflicts” result in injuries, death, and displaced hikers and equestrians, it’s clear that our trails can be a flashpoint rather than a safety valve. Who would have thought that we’d reach a stage where it’s sometimes safer to look at nature within the confines of a museum amidst a major metropolis, than walking on a nearby trail?

Mark Your Calendar

Through Sunday, September 17

Exhibition: “Eliot Porter:

In the Realm of Nature”

J. Paul Getty Museum

1200 Getty Center Drive

Los Angeles