Jennifer Tucker: Visual Ecologies

From the nineteenth century to today, photographic images have impacted public opinion, policy and funding, science education, as well as the many aspects of visual and popular culture that are affected by ecological issues. They have shaped scientific and cultural perceptions of natural areas as well as awareness of the impacts of pollution and toxic waste on human communities. What stories then can be told (or not) with images? Under what conditions are people moved? What new or different kinds of images are adequate for addressing contemporary problems and the future?

Pointing to literary authors from the past such as George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, and Rachel Carson, one of today’s leading environmental writers, Bill McKibben famously pointed out that “each advance in environmental practice was preceded by a great book,” a situation that he described as being “perhaps unique in American letters.” Yet advances in environmental practice have also quietly influenced the production of great and consequential images that have played pivotal roles in shaping environmental science.

Images of the environment serve as both as a catalyst and as a mode of understanding. Visual portrayals help shape the context in which a politics takes place, and are often instrumental in stimulating dialogue and debate. In our relationship to environmentalism, sometimes pictures have a chance to change history by creating a larger understanding of the subject, bringing a greater awareness to pressing issues.

Take for example the American photographer Carleton Watkins, whose 1861 photographs of Yosemite were shown to Congress by Senator John Conness (R-California). The American wilderness held a special power, as symbol and resource, and the presentation of Watkins’ photos were said to have influenced President Abraham Lincoln to sign an 1864 bill declaring Yosemite Valley inviolable – legislation that paved the way for the creation of the country’s national parks.

Carleton Watkins, The Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite, 1861, albumen silver print from glass negative.

A century later, the newly created US Environmental Protection Agency sponsored the Documerica project in 1972. Nearly one hundred leading photographers under the direction of WWII veteran and photojournalist Clifford Hampshire were contracted to document subjects of environmental concern. The monumental project, reminiscent of the Farm Security Administration photo-documentary project of the 1930s, produced more than 20,000 photographs depicting a remarkable breadth of situations: water, air and noise pollution; unchecked land development, poverty, the environmental impact on public health, and images of Americans creating positive change in their surroundings. The photographs were exhibited widely and nationally in art museums, educational institutions, and at the Smithsonian Institution.

For the ‘Documerica Project’ (1971-77), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hired freelance photographers to capture images relating to environmental problems, EPA activities, and everyday life in the 1970s. The U.S. National Archives digitized more than 15,000 photographs from the series ‘Documerica’ and included them in its online catalogue. This photograph by the photographer Michael Philip Manheim, for example, of low-flying 727 jets flying over East Boston houses, dramatically captured the noise pollution crisis caused by excessive jet engine noise in the Neptune Road neighborhood near Logan Airport in his hometown of Boston.

Similarly, in 2003, during a debate in the US Senate about oil drilling in the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) urged members of Congress to visit a Smithsonian exhibit of photographs by the young physicist, Subhankar Banerjee, showing the biodiversity and human habitation of the refuge. Among Banerjee’s goals, he wrote, was to counter impressions of the Arctic as a “frozen wasteland of snow and ice” by using color photography as “a wonderful visual language to help us unlearn some of these intolerances.” In the end, the bill to open the refuge to oil drilling failed by four votes.

Caribou Migration II, 2002; from the series “Oil and the Caribou,” courtesy: Subhankar Banerjee

Yet as the environmental historian, Finis Dunaway cautions, images that circulated to raise environmental awareness often have left crucial issues “outside of the frame” by focusing on individual, moral choices at the expense of structural, long-term environmental consequences. As Rebecca Solnit put it in a 2014 essay Are We Missing the Big Picture on Climate Change?: “It’s a difficult subject to tell and to take in. …. A lot of it is hard to see. … To know how things have already changed, you have to remember how they used to be.” Yet the future is also challenging to photograph, as well (although to see possibilities for the future embedded in visual imagery may be one of society’s greatest tests).

Can such complex and long-term processes be captured by still or moving images?

One possibility may come from photography by scientists themselves. Helen Poulos, an ecologist who specializes in plant distribution patterns and physiology, uses photography in innovative ways in the field work that she does in forests, deserts and rivers across North America, documenting changes in the landscape in order to better understand the historically changing relationships between humans and ecosystems. The method that she uses is “repeat” digital photography (sometimes combined with repeat satellite imagery analysis). As she told me, “Environmental scientists around the world focus on documenting change, and repeat photography represents an important medium for doing just that.” She explains: “Taking a picture at the same location at two points in time allows scientists to objectively document the effects of natural or anthropogenic changes in the landscape.” For Poulos and other environmental scientists, new photographic methods provide quantitative as well as qualitative methods for demonstrating the shifting of landscapes.

Repeat photography from Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona, 2000. These photographs document tree invasion in the wake of 20th-century fire suppression policies by the US Government. Top photo (c. 1900) is from the National Park Service archives and bottom photograph (2000) is by Alan Taylor.

Over one hundred and fifty years after Congress began to see Yosemite in new ways, in part through the mediation of photographs, learning how to see and communicate with visual images remains both important and increasingly consequential.

Author, Jennifer Tucker, is an Associate Professor of History at Wesleyan University and a member of WSC Academic Committee.

Originally published in Seeing Science on January 24, 2017.