Originally published in Seeing the Woods,

1 October 2019

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Picturing Complexity: Environmental Photojournalism in the Twentieth Century


Photo of an analog camera.

Ever since the invention of photography in the late nineteenth century, animals, plants, picturesque sites, sublime landscapes, and human interactions with the environment, have provided motifs that have captured many modifications of human-nature relations. Photography has fundamentally affected the way readers and viewers understand and learn about the dynamics and consequences of such changes. Over the long twentieth century, photography and photojournalism became decisive instruments in framing environmental awareness and in setting the environmental agenda. The sets of accompanying narratives, however, changed and expanded over time, as did the extent and the complexity of environmental problems and conflicts.

Professional photojournalism evolved with the rise of mass media and blossomed with technological innovations like portable cameras, film negatives, and new ways of reprography. The German photo magazine Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, founded in 1891, started to print timely photographs in 1901. In their weekly visual series—starring exotic birds, traveling kings and queens, or sports—there would be images of the most recent natural disasters worldwide and locally, like the completely dried-up river Elbe in 1904.

The concept of high-quality news documentary traveled and expanded. In 1928, the French magazine Vu was launched. Less than a decade later, Life turned into the most popular photo magazine in the US and started off with a documentary showing the massive building sites of the Ford Peck Dam in Montana. The photographer Dorothea Lange created some of the most iconic visual series of the century when she depicted the effects of the human-induced catastrophic Dust Bowl on migrant workers. Knowing what we do today, we can see that she in fact captured the complex correlation of economic and agricultural exploitation of the prairies and the shifts in regional weather that exacerbated ecological and social devastation during the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange with her camera box, 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Parallel to the rise of visual mass media, environmentalism emerged in the form of bird protection and nature preservation societies. From the outset, activists were eager to communicate their messages via any channel they could find to get public attention. According to the rationales of visual narratives, they had to find ways to translate their experiences of loss and degradation of nature into images. One of the most effective ways was to contrast natural beauty with the results of human exploitation. For one of the early campaigns against the international feather trade evolving around the beginning of the twentieth century, the activists confronted models wearing feathered hats with pictures of slaughtered birds and their starving hatchlings, or arranged pictures as a crime story, documenting starving nestlings after their parents had been killed for their feathers by reckless hunters.

Jahrbuch für Vogelschutz (Act II: Scream of murder and death-wailing, anxious flapping of wings!), 1927. Courtesy of the archive of the author.

Another campaign of early environmentalism targeted oil pollution, which escalated into a severe environmental problem when the shipping industry promoted the shift from coal- to oil-powered vessels. After World War I, the plight of oiled birds forced bird lovers to stage the victims of pollution in a way that made the public understand the complexity and scale of marine contamination. The first step towards raising awareness was to document the victims.

As there was still only black and white photography at the time, and the oil as such was hardly visible in the images, photographers arranged birds in a way that carefully combined the source of the fouling and the effect it had on the environment, therefore increasing the appeal to protest against it.

The fledgling conservation movement depended on visual narratives to get their issues on the public agenda. Vice versa, their appeals caught the attention of professional photographers as a worthy topic. The reciprocity of environmentalism and environmental photojournalism would grow stronger over the next decades. Environmentalists were good with diagnosing and documenting degradation, but they did not necessarily have the visual competency to turn pictures into narratives. Such narratives depended increasingly on creativity as they became more complex and sometimes even invisible to the eye. Topics like acid rain, nuclear contamination, biodiversity loss, or climate change were much harder to depict than erosion, oil spills, or littering. At the same time, the variety of environmental problems grew tremendously and asked for diversification in the art of visual portrayal. Photography had to bear witness to environmental crime; it documented the secretive life of flora and fauna hidden in next-door meadows or distant swamps, it covered the social dimension of environmental degradation and “translated” abstract processes like ocean acidification into tangible images.

Oiled Bird. Photo courtesy of the Institut für Vogelforschung, Wilhelmshaven, 1920s. Public domain.

If photographers wanted to be successful in capturing the right moment, they had to apply the art of mimicry and become a part of nature, wait for hours, days, or weeks. The global scope of environmental issues encouraged them to travel the world and take risks when visiting contaminated landscapes or sites of environmental conflict. Photographers depended on scientific information, ecological expertise, and “real” happenings to guarantee originality and authenticity. Photographers had to get very close to natural objects, which lay beyond the readers’ experience. New technology helped to get to the point. While in the early days of photography equipment had been extremely fragile, compact cameras along with technology like zoom lenses, high speed but silent shutters, and high sensitivity film, helped to overcome the distance between the photographers and their subjects. Now, even a common toad could be staged like a star and the art of taking pictures for investigative means became subtle and less noticeable. Digitalization would provide photographers with yet more means for visual expression.

Photojournalists want to contribute to news and media and be part of the public discourse. Their pictures can play a decisive role in environmental debates. Many illustrated cover stories had an impact on global environmental debates, like Eugen W. Smith’s iconic study chronicling a group of fishing families fighting to stop toxic mercury effluents from a chemical plant in the Japanese city of Minamata in the early 1970s; Sebastiao Salgado’s images of burning oil wells in the deserts of Kuwait, which documented the environmental disaster and aftermath of the Iraq war in 1991; or Chris Jordan’s more recent series of albatrosses’ dead bodies, stuffed with bits of plastic waste.

After all, photographers and their visual imaginaries take an authoritative role in understanding today’s age of rhetoric and visual extremes. Environmental (photo)journalists might benefit from environmental historians’ knowledge, not only regarding the longue durée of human interaction with nature but also in terms of the historical background of environmentalism that they themselves are part of. Environmental historians, on the other hand, should always keep a close eye on the ways photographers present and document the environment as it provides a rich historical source of shifting perceptions and advancing conflicts.

Originally published as: Wöbse, Anna-Katharina. “Picturing Complexity: Environmental Photojournalism in the Twentieth Century.” Seeing the Woods (blog), 1 October 2019. View it here.

Anna-Katharina Wöbse is an environmental historian and curator. She works and lectures at the University of Gießen. Her PhD dissertation explored the environmental diplomacy of the League of Nations and the early UN. Anna has extensively published on the history of international environmental movements and environmental biographies, animal-human-relations, and visual history. She was a Carson Fellow in 2018.

Creative Commons License CC BY 4.0

2019 Anna-Katharina Wöbse
This refers only to the text and does not include any image rights.

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