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Is Nature Photography Too Beautiful?

A move toward “truth in labeling” would bring photographic arts more in line with ecological science.

Robert Louis Chianese

In her famous collection of essays On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag theorizes that the medium of photography itself keeps us outside the frame: viewers become voyeurs and uninvolved consumers of millions of images, distanced from the subjects. So is nature photography never able to engage our activist emotions for ameliorating the plight of the Earth? Perhaps we need to inform all the environmental organizations that bank on it.

We have at least one famous example of photographs of environmental degradation that sparked reform: the 1930s Dust Bowl photos of Dorothea Lange and other Farm Security Administration photographers. They trained America’s eyes onto human-caused soil depletion in a period of prolonged drought that literally blew the land away. Lange’s “Migrant Mother” portrait has become rightly famous, and dust storm photos brought the double dangers of drought and improper plowing into view.

The effects of these government-sponsored photographs, coupled with an all-out national effort to reduce poverty and change farming practices during the Depression, altered the consciousness of America about the connections between economy and ecology. These words have the same root—“ecos,” or household; we live in and depend on both, and we still struggle to devise policy based on their interconnections. These 1930s photos have a powerful, black and white naive realism about them that seems far removed from the color-wheel aesthetics of nature photography today.

Consider the potential impact of a new school of “exposé photography,” one that lays our pollutions bare. We could create a calendar decked out with toxic damage photos, 12 months of unaesthetic environmental horrors! The website Shutterstock offers more than 1,850 different photos of landfills. Under the heading of “environmental damage,” the stock photo website Inmagine displays nearly 6,000 images that could fill up hundreds of calendars: the McMansion Footprint Calendar, the Urban Blight Calendar, the Junkyard Calendar (probably a favorite), the Clear Cut Calendar, the Smokestack and Dirty Skies Calendar, and so on. Acting on this notion, the BBC Wildlife Fund has already created an award-winning “Almost Extinct” calendar, in which each day of the year features an animal under the stress of our intrusions.

Again, this may be a pointless endeavor, if photography by its very nature aestheticizes and distances its subjects from viewers. But critical theory points out something much more obvious about photography, and potentially more useful. We capture a shot, shoot an image, thus metaphorically “kill” it by freezing it in time. We train our controlling eye and magisterial gaze on a scene and own it by snapping it. We hold it still, forever—in fact, a still life. The photo is a fleeting moment etched by light, taken out of time, and stored on film or chip.

All photography, we might argue, is therefore elegiac—a meditation on time and fleeting subjects caught and then lost to the ongoing present. This may be easiest to see with family photos. Elegies can be meditative without being mournful, formally acknowledging the passing of a moment or scene or prospect even as that subject carries on in real life.

With nature photography, though, the subject all too often goes on to degrade and suffer damage large and small, placing those elegies in a different context. If we adjust our concept of nature to fit truer ecological realities, we may be able to see nature photography itself reflect them. A glorious image of Yosemite’s entrance can hold within it a sense of loss, an elegiac longing for the time when it was fully vital and powerful. Gorgeousness and grandeur themselves can come to signify loss.

This evokes an even more basic epistemological conflict: the tension between appearance and reality. Our eyes are an unreliable source about what’s actual, since our concepts drive our vision. Immanuel Kant formulates it this way: “Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.” Our dominant cultural concept of the natural world still carries over from the romantic nineteenth century, where Nature was posited as pure, wild, healthy, and endlessly regenerative. This can blind us to its present diminished state. The camera’s images, beautiful or not, depict a reality we currently cannot or dare not see.

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