The Role Of Photography In Conservation Of Landscape

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American landscape photography has been largely influenced by aesthetics, particularly the picturesque and the sublime. The word picturesque, often refers to idealised landscape, the aesthetics, how pleasing something is to look at, beauty and the visually balanced. We also refer visually to a sense of wilderness, something out of a painting. “The sublime in photography is categorized as the depiction of formless and uplifting shapes that produce feelings of awe and terror” (Giblett, American Wilderness pg 69-70). In landscape photography the sublime offers a sense of vastness, magnificence, an appreciation for unspoiled and untouched wilderness.

Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams are both well known American landscape and wilderness photographers, their works were very influential in the promotion of conservation, and the creation of National Parks in the United States. Both Watkins and Adams work captivated the public, engraving visions of pristine landscape’s in the minds of viewers.

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It was Watkins who first captured Half Dome [Fig.], Cathedral Rocks [Fig.], and El Capitan [Fig.] which later became some of the most influential photographs in American conservation history. Adams wrote in his Autobiography that Watkins work “had great positive effects of the efforts that made Yosemite Valley a state park in 1864” (Adams. A (1985: 149) Ansel Adams, An Autobiography). It was somewhat due to Watkins and the wide distribution of his photographs that lead Congress to declare Yosemite a National Park in 1890 which in turn paved the way for the American national park system.

Adams is renowned for photographing the dramatic beauty of the American Wilderness. These classic landscape photographs were focused on the untouched, the picturesque, capturing pristine Landscapes. Adams work assisted the expansion and the protection of the National Park system in America, in particular, the preservation of Yosemite National Park. In this sense photography was used to benefit the environment, and were crucial in educating and inspiring the populations to preserve something beautiful.

During the summer of 1919 Adams secured a job as custodian of the Sierra Club’s Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley. The Sierra Club is an environmental organisation in the United States, it was founded in 1892 by John Muir. Muir was referred to as the “Father of the National Parks” he was recognised as one of the countries most Influential Naturalists, as an environmental philosopher he was heavily involved in the creation of Americas National Parks such as Kings Canyon, Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier National Park.

In 1936 The National State Parks conference was held in Washington, The Sierra Club chose Adams to represent the club in presenting the proposal for a wilderness park in the Kings River Sierra, they felt his photographs would be persuasive. The Sierra Club was aware of the key role photography had played in the decision to form earlier parks. The photographs of Carleton Watkins had swayed the unprecedented decision to name Yosemite Valley as a state park in 1864, and also the photographs William Henry Jackson produced influencing Congress’ decision to create the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872.

During the 20th century there was growing environmental degradation in the West. Adams used his works to endorse the intentions of the Sierra Club, his expressed a commitment to the conservation of landscape. However, Adams repeatedly stated that, within his work, “beauty comes first”.

After establishment of the park, National Park Service Direct Arno Cammerer wrote to Adams, “I realize that a silent but most effective voice in the campaign was your book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. So long as that book is in existence, it will go on justifying the park.” (……..reference). Adams Work celebrates the beauty of the natural, the untouched. Although not perhaps their original intended purpose, the photographs inspire and enrich viewers, further influencing the preservation and conservation of the National Parks.

People travelled to take photographs, to see the landscape, with the hopes of becoming closer to nature, much as Adams did in 1916. They had preconceived views of these ‘beautiful locations’. Their photographs already composed, Tourists travelled to witness the beauty, take their own photographs, be closer to the natural world.

These great American Photographers works influenced tourism, encouraging people to retrace the paths travelled in the images, observing the scene for themselves. There was a shift in the role of photography from scientific documentation and records into a tool for conservation. Examining the effects W.H. Jackson, Watkins and Adams had on the conservation of the American landscape, it is evident that where there is developed interest in an are, it becomes more then a piece of land. It becomes an area of great beauty with new found sense of importance, an area worth protecting.

The National Parks of America were largely ‘preserved’ due to its potential as a tourist destination, which in turn was brought about due to photography and the vital role it played in promoting the idea of the American ‘wilderness’. It could be said that Adams Photographs, without actually addressing the origin of environment devastation, acts as a form of protest against the social and environmental hardships of capitalism.


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