TO JULY 27

Given his public renown, it’s somewhat surprising that “Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness”—now showing with little fanfare at the National Museum of Natural History—represents the nature photographer’s first major retrospective. Porter (1901-1990) is known for his placid images of nature—ferns drifting in the fog, leaves gently floating atop still waters, slow-spreading lichens on rocks, smoothly carved canyon walls, and (his signature visual) waterfalls frozen in time through long exposures. With 162 serene-yet-serious images (Cirio, near La Virgenes, Baja, California, July 31, 1966 is pictured), the exhibition sometimes borders on monotonous, but it is saved by its smart interpretation of Porter as an early color artist struggling in vain for acceptance from his resolutely black-and-white peers (including Ansel Adams, who hated the newfangled technique). Porter’s polymath range comes as a surprise: taxonomic bird studies; National Geographic-style photo essays about Africa, the Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica; and images of ancient structures in Greece and China. Porter’s avian work will be of interest mostly to birders; the other two categories provide the show’s finest photographs: a blissfully abstract image of churning Antarctic waters in the late afternoon sun and a pleasing composition of weathered, marble columns in Athens. Porter was an activist behind the lens—the Sierra Club published many of his images in pro-conservation coffee-table books, and his work is credited with helping pass the Wilderness Act of 1964—but his subtle, tranquil settings seem to have inspired less controversy than other recent Smithsonian exhibitions. The show is on view from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily to Sunday, July 6, at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th & Constitution Avenue NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Louis Jacobson)

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