The Plow that Broke the Plains (see previous posting) is discussed in an essay by Denis Cosgrove, included in my friend Kathryn’s interdisciplinary archive BIPOLAR. Lorentz’s images of the Dustbowl are one of the examples picked by Cosgrove to consider five key moments in 20th century environmentalism. He also talks about photographs of atomic bomb tests in the fifties and the first images seen of the Earth from space. The other two examples are linked:
- Environmental concern in the early twentieth century was focused on nature protection, as in John Muir’s campaign for the creation of Yosemite National Park, the singular ‘natural’ beauty of which had been established in the previous century through Albert Bierstadt’s paintings and photographs by Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins. Subsequently, the panoramic shots of Yosemite taken by Muir’s acolyte Ansel Adams would feature in a series of Sierra Club coffee table books. Their portrayal of a timeless wilderness untouched by human agency only started to be criticised by a new generation of environmentalists in the late sixties.
- Mass suburbanisation after the War brought new fears of urban sprawl and, again, images were crucial in dramatising the issue. Cosgrove highlights William Garnett’s aerial photographs of new suburban homes, like Finished Housing, Lakewood, California, which were originally shot to celebrate the use of industrial building techniques in a period of high housing demand. However, re-titled and juxtaposed with Ansel Adams photographs in the Sierra Club’s This is the American Earth (1960), they were used to symbolise both the destruction of the wilderness and the restriction of freedom in an age of uniform mass housing.
Cosgrove ends his essay by discussing the way images of threatened polar bears are being used to give fears of global warming a sense of urgency. ‘The focus is on natural life, with topography and landscape reduced to a backdrop, no longer a space of deep time and infinitely slow evolution, but of accelerating change and catastrophic extinction.’