The Use of Photography in the American Conservation Movement

A NWNL NextGen Blog by Johanna Mitra, Stony Brook University.

Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Johanna Mitra lives in New York City and is currently an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University. She is majoring in ecosystems and human impact with a focus on wildlife conservation, and minoring in geospatial science. 


Photography is a medium that has been used to initiate and garner support for movements all over the world. From documenting civil rights movements in the United States to wars overseas, photographers have been able to make historic events accessible to ordinary people, bringing them a sense of unity and purpose. One such campaign, although less talked about, was the movement to preserve North America’s public lands. Nature photography allowed the stunning valleys of Yosemite to be captured in a single shot, or the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon to be brought to life. The photographic works of influential nature photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, and Philip Hyde have allowed the conservation movement to flourish and continue to inspire future generations to protect our public lands.

Yosemite National Park, coyote hunting mice in snow

After moving to California in his adulthood, Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) developed an affinity for photography and in 1861, made the trek to what is now Yosemite National Park, equipped with a massive amount of his equipment. He returned with prints that were regarded as “images of superb technical and artistic quality.”1Hathaway His photograph titled Bridal Veil Fall in Springtime, Yosemite depicts a sheer rock face with a tumbling waterfall in the distance, taken from within the valley. The trees along the edge of the photograph frame the mountain, emphasizing its rough and jagged edges. His depiction of the pristine and seemingly untouched landscape through photographs was pivotal in encouraging President Lincoln and Congress to sign legislation preserving Yosemite’s land. In fact, this law played a significant role in initiating the later creation of the National Park Service in 1916.2Hathaway Watkins’ early work eventually helped pave the way for the establishment of Yosemite as a national park in 1890.

Ansel Adams is one of the most well-known names in the American conservation movement because of his tireless efforts to protect natural lands, especially through his photography. Born and raised in California, Adams (1902-1984) recalled being “more responsive to wild environments than to urban” growing up, and with a Brownie camera began documenting Yosemite Valley.3Turnage While his work on Yosemite is widely regarded, another one of his lesser known—yet still successful—campaigns was his effort to preserve Kings Canyon as a national park. His photograph titled Fin Dome, along with many others taken by Adams, was brought to Washington D.C. in a portfolio to convince the National Parks Service that the canyon should be prioritized for conservation. Fin Dome is a stunning portrait, depicting a tall mountain amidst rocky slopes and faraway peaks. This extraordinary rock formation was just one of the many landscape photographs that illustrated the wonders that could be found in Kings Canyon.

He included these photographs in a book titled, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, which encouraged both the Secretary of the Interior and President Roosevelt to lobby for its protection and eventually establish it as a national park in 1940.4Sierra Club On his work in Kings Canyon, Adams remarked, “with what one may call arrogant modesty, I think many of my pictures…have an excitement in them which commands more attentions than if they were the same scene not composed or adequately printed.”5Turmage

Philip Hyde (1921-2006) was a more contemporary nature photographer, yet his work has allowed the conservation movement to continue its momentum at an especially critical time for environmentalism. With so many national parks established due to the efforts of photographers like Watkins and Adams, the new issue to be tackled was ensuring these lands were not decreased in size or used for industrial purposes. Hyde’s work, which specialized in the American West, was included in “more environmental than those of any other photographer.”6Sierra Club. One of these many campaigns was focused on opposing efforts to build a dam upstream of the Grand Canyon, a movement met with letter writing campaigns, ads and petitions against it.7Hyde One of Hyde’s photographs, titled View Upriver from Toroweap Overlook, depicts the red rock formations illuminated by the sun as seen from the middle of the valley looking down. This otherworldly landscape is the epitome of the American West. After being published in Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon, the amount of support shown by the public prevented the dam from ever being built.

In their own ways, each photographer showed the public the places worth their attention and effort within their own country. Without the work of these skilled photographers, the wonders and scientific importance of the natural world would be lost to an increasingly advanced society. Our national parks provide a place of solitude and recreation to millions of people a year and continue to face threats to their preservation today. Following in the footsteps of landscape photography is the relatively new field of conservation photography, which has become increasingly influential as more environmental issues take center stage in politics. It is important, more so now than ever, to ensure that our national parks live on to inspire future generations to continue the work of conservationists before them, preserving these places in photographs and real life.

Joshua Tree National Monument, California

SOURCES:

Hathaway, Bruce. “About Carleton Watkins.” Smithsonian.com , Smithsonian Magazine , July 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/about-carleton-watkins-116195/.

“History: Ansel Adams.” Sierra Club, vault.sierraclub.org/history/ansel-adams/.
Hyde, David Leland. “Philip Hyde: The Art Of Making National Parks.” Outdoor Photographer, 28 June 2016, http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/on-location/featured-stories/the-art-of-making-national-parks/#.

“Sierra Club History: Philip Hyde.” Sierra Club, vault.sierraclub.org/history/philip-hyde/default.aspx.

Turnage, Robert. “Ansel Adams: The Role of the Artist in the Environmental Movement.”The Ansel Adams Gallery, anseladams.com/ansel-adams-the-role-of-the-artist-in-the-environmental-movement/.

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