Advertising U.S. Environmentalism – Part 2: The Pristine Landscape

Published on October 14th, 2015 by Paul Messaris. Filed under Advertising

Anyone who has glanced at one of the calendars or posters put out by such organizations as the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy, or the Sierra Club will be familiar with the kind of image that currently plays the dominant role in U.S. environmentalist depictions of the way things out to be: a landscape without people and without any evidence of human activity. This vision of a “pristine landscape” has been a consistent feature of environmentalist activity in this country since the earliest campaigns of organized advocacy in the latter half of the 19th century. Indeed, as a pictorial convention the image of the pristine landscape has exercised even wider influence in the visual culture of the United States: As Michael Griffin has pointed out, it is a stable genre in photographic publications and the activities of photographic organizations with no explicit environmentalist concerns. Where did this image come from, and what is its significance?

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The deliberate use of visual images for environmentalist purposes can be traced back at least as far as the work of Thomas Cole. In 1839, he painted a view of the Genesee River Gorge which was used by the canal commissioner of New York State in an attempt to block a disfiguring construction project in the Genesee Valley Canal. However, this scene included a log building which was evidently viewed at the time as an enhancement of its appeal. For examples of environmentalist advocacy making use of images of apparently untouched landscapes, we have to go forward to 1864, when a federal grant of some ten square miles allowed the State of California to establish a public park in the Yosemite area, or to 1872, the year of the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Although the business interests of the tourist industry were central factors in both of these actions, promotion of both actions was based largely on appeals to non-economic values: the spiritual benefits to be derived from Yosemite’s natural beauty; the edification afforded by experiencing the unusual natural phenomena at Yellowstone. In both cases, pictures of pristine wilderness played a prominent part in the promotional efforts.

The promotion of Yosemite as a tourist attraction began about a decade before its establishment as a state park,  and it included the publication of magazine illustrations, the display of photographs, and the production of stereographs (i.e., double-image photographs providing a 3-dimensional effect when viewed through a special apparatus). Nowadays, the best known among these various images are the mammoth-plate photographs of Carleton Watkins, shown at the time in his gallery in San Francisco. In the case of Yellowstone, creation of the park followed a lobbying campaign which made calculated use of two sets of now-famous images: the photographs of William Henry Jackson and the drawings of Thomas Moran. These pictures, the products of the two artists’ participation in a 1871 government survey of Yellowstone, were displayed in the rotunda of the Capitol building as part of the lobbying effort, which also included a magazine article on Yellowstone illustrated by Moran before he had actually visited the area. There has been some controversy about the effectiveness of the Yellowstone pictures. In particular, Howard Bossen has claimed that traditional versions of this story, in which Jackson’s photographs are seen as the decisive factor, are highly exaggerated. In fact, however, Jackson’s own account of the story in his autobiography is rather modest – all he says is that his pictures “helped do a fine piece of work” – and there is no reason to doubt that the pictures did indeed help.

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It is in the images used in these two promotional efforts that we encounter the most obvious models for the central role that pristine landscapes were to perform in the subsequent history of environmentalist imagery. We might therefore be tempted to draw the following conclusion: Perhaps the emergence of the pristine landscape convention was simply the result of a shift in artistic – and environmentalist – focus from the densely-populated East to the empty West. Perhaps the only reason US environmentalist images often show no trace of human activity is that there are no human beings around in the places where these images are typically made. There is undoubtedly some truth in these assumptions. However, to the extent that they emphasize location – where a picture is made – as opposed to motivation – why it is made there – they are misleading.

William Cronon has argued that the popularity of pristine Western landscapes in the second half of the 19th century was paralleled by a trend toward depopulated images of the East. As a characteristic instance of the latter tendency he cites Frederic Edwin Church’s “Twilight in the Wilderness” (1860), a painting of an imaginary woodlands scene apparently inspired by Church’s trips to Maine. However, a more telling case in point may be Church’s monumental depiction of Niagara Falls (1857). This picture caused a sensation when it was first exhibited to the public, and it was eventually reproduced as a lithograph in thousands of copies. It is widely regarded today as the most influential landscape painting of its period. A major reason for its success was the point of view from which Church had chosen to show the scene. Previous pictures had usually positioned their viewers on the banks of the river beyond the falls, giving them a frontal view of the descending sheets of water. But Church’s painting puts the viewer above the falls, on the brink of the cataract, looking down at the waters as they cascade into the unseen depths below. Furthermore, Church’s point of view completely eliminates the foreground of solid land which was customary in earlier portrayals. This choice of perspective has the dramatic effect of suspending the viewer in mid-air, but it also has another implication: It erases almost entirely any evidence of human activity related to the falls. Only in the distant background of the picture, at the far end of the scene, is there a thin strip of land, and one has to scrutinize the canvas closely to notice that there are actually some buildings there, partly hidden among the trees.

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The sense of unspoiled nature resulting from these aspects of Church’s painting was actually quite spurious. By the time the painting was made, Niagara Falls had already become a major tourist destination, receiving over 60,000 visitors a year, and the area around the falls had been transformed thoroughly by commercial enterprises catering to these visitors. There were souvenir stands and sideshows, fences and ticket booths, walkways and staircases, and even an observation tower built in the rapids at the edge of the falls (the only structure which is clearly visible in most reproductions of Church’s painting). It is these discrepancies between the picture and the reality of the place that make this picture a particularly clear illustration of the following point: Although it may be easier to find unpeopled, untransformed scenery in the West than in the East, the pristine-landscape convention is ultimately a result of choice and preference, not location.

This point has in fact been made about both of the sets of Western images that led us to this discussion. In the course of an analysis of Carleton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite, Weston Naef has observed that Watkins’s compositions “studiously omitted” the hotel and other “traces of human settlement” that were present in the Yosemite Valley when he began to work there. And, while there were no hotels in Yellowstone when William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran first encountered it, tourism had already begun in the area, and a “small group of invalids” had established a camp near Mammoth Hot springs, hoping to take advantage of the supposed medicinal properties of the waters. However, not surprisingly, the selective omission of human presence becomes considerably more critical to the viability of the pristine landscape convention when we move closer to our own time. Among 20th-century artists whose work has had a bearing on environmentalist matters, the name most prominently associated with the pristine-landscape genre has undoubtedly been that of Ansel Adams. Like Watkins, Adams produced much of his work in the Yosemite area, which he visited regularly beginning in the 1920s. By that point, the Yosemite Valley was already well on its way toward becoming the congested complex of tourist facilities that it is today. Yet, with few exceptions, Adams’s photographs recapitulate Watkins’s avoidance of such things. In his written account of how he created some of his best-known images, Adams also makes it clear that he would not hesitate to manipulate a negative in order to eliminate unwanted signs of human impact on the land. Specifically, he describes removing the initials of a local high school from a hillside in his famous “Winter Sunrise” of 1944..

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The broad popularity and pervasive influence of Adams’s work make it a good starting point for an investigation of the pristine landscape’s significance to environmentalist thought and action. Although he claimed never to have taken a picture specifically intended for environmentalist purposes, Adams was an active environmentalist throughout his adult life. His photographs appeared frequently in the Sierra Club Bulletin and other periodicals; they were used repeatedly, by both Adams and others, in lobbying campaigns; and, perhaps most significantly, they were featured prominently in the series of large-format picture books that the Sierra Club began to publish in 1960. David Brower, who initiated this “exhibition-format” series as executive director of the Sierra Club and then developed a similar series at Friends of the Earth, has given the following rough estimate of what these books, together with calendars and other related publications, have meant for these two organizations: “About twenty million people spending some fifty million dollars in the marketplace to read the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth message at the buyer’s expense.” But what was that message?

In an appraisal of Ansel Adams’s work published after his death in 1984, photography critic Andy Grunberg writes that Adams’s landscape photography “shows us a natural world so precisely ordered and so cleansed of ills that we might suspect it had been sanitized by a cosmic disinfecting agent.” In support of this point, Grunberg quotes from a letter that Adams had written in 1922 to his future wife, Virginia Best: “How I wish that the [Yosemite] Valley could be now like it was 40 years ago a pure wilderness, with only a wagon road through it, and no automobiles nor mobs.” What Grunberg seems to be saying is that Adams saw the presence and the impact of people as an infection of the natural world – and that his photographs were expressions of a desire to wipe that infection out. In other words, Grunberg appears to be equating absence of humans with antipathy to humans. This kind of criticism of Adams’s landscapes, i.e., the contention that they stemmed from hostility or, at best, indifference to people, had been made repeatedly during his lifetime, and his published correspondence contains several defensive references to such perceptions of his work. A 1944 letter to his close friend and occasional collaborator Nancy Newhall contains a long list of statements that, in Adams’s view, were characteristic of how other people saw him. This list concludes with three items: “I don’t like people,” “I don’t understand the BIG social problems of today,” “I’m precious.” Adams was clearly pained by such charges, to which he would usually respond either by arguing that there were human benefits to be derived from wilderness or by pointing out that some of his work did in fact portray people. But even his most sustained series of human portraits, the photographs of Japanese-American internees in the World War II “relocation center” at Manzanar, were dismissed by people whose views of Adams had evidently been shaped irrevocably by his landscapes (e.g., see the comments of Dorothea Lange on this subject).

As a characterization of Ansel Adams’s personality, the accusation of lack of concern for people is bizarre. Wallace Stegner, who knew him well in his later years, pointedly says that he “had family obligations because he treasured them, hundreds of friends because he welcomed them, thousands of admirers to whom he granted the courtesy of polite attention;” and Adams himself proclaimed: “I was born to be gregarious” (in a 1943 letter to Alfred Stieglitz). Adams aside, however, the broader possibility that love for wilderness in environmentalist rhetoric (whether visual or verbal) may imply dislike of humanity deserves closer scrutiny. The contention that environmentalists are unconcerned about other people or actively hostile toward them is a major component of contemporary anti-environmentalist rhetoric, expressed vividly enough in the charge that environmentalists are radicals who care more for spotted owls, snail darters, and other “obscure” species than for human beings. How valid is this kind of indictment?

It is certainly true that some environmentalistsbroadly definedhave made statements every bit as extreme as anti-environmentalists have claimed. The view of humanity as an infection has been put forth explicitly in the theory that global warming is equivalent to a fever, an attempt by the earth’s defense systems to get rid of overpopulation. Along related lines, an infamous article in the Earth First! Journal once pondered the following question: “Is AIDS the Answer to an Environmentalist’s Prayer?” It may also be worth noting that similar sentiments pervade the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, whose descriptions of nature are often quoted in environmentalist publications (for example, on page 2 of Ansel Adams’s autobiography). Although Jeffers’s most frequently cited line (from the poem “The Answer”) is the injunction to love the whole of life, “not man apart from that,” elsewhere he says such things as: “I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man” (from “original Sin”); “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” (“Hurt Hawks”); “the breed of man … looks like a botched experiment that has run wild and has to be stopped” (“Orca”). Jeffers may be especially pertinent to the question we are considering because, at the same time that he was making such pronouncements, he was also composing verbal portraits of wild nature that are unsurpassed in power and evocativeness. He therefore raises much more explicitly than Ansel Adams does the question of whether love for untouched nature necessarily implies hostility toward human beings.

Why exactly people love wildernesswhat kinds of satisfaction they get from contemplating or being in an environment that they are not exploiting economicallyhas long been a puzzle to philosophers and other writers who have tried to think about this issue with precision. Among the various rewards that wild nature can provide to humans, one that seems common (and is commonly recognized) is the sense of vicarious participation in a realm where the frustrations and disappointments and other adversities of one’s social life have no meaning. In exceptional cases, when dissatisfaction with one’s ordinary social identity is particularly acute, this aspect of the appeal of nature can lead to the kinds of withdrawals into extreme environments described famously by Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire or, more systematically, by Yi-Fu Tuan in his penetrating writings about desert and polar exploration. But more moderate versions of this sort of impulse are surely quite widespread. For example, the landscape theorist Alexander Wilson had this to say about the Disney wildlife movies that he saw in his youth: “Amid the race-related violence and catastrophic urban ‘redevelopment’ of the U.S. city I grew up in, … (not to mention the disintegration of my family), Disney’s stories of a nature ‘in balance’ and somehow outside of history functioned as a kind of utopian fantasy for me.”

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It may be, then, that an element of dissatisfaction with society, or even revulsion from it, is indeed a common ingredient in feelings about nature and in responses to artistic representations of wilderness. But, having said this much, I should immediately add that by no means do I see this observation as a reason for environmentalists to be particularly apologetic. For one thing, as Martin Lewis has acknowledged in the course of a thorough and balanced assessment of the state of contemporary environmentalism, the kinds of extreme positions I have cited above are confined to a small, unrepresentative segment in the spectrum of environmentalist opinion. More significantly, though, I would emphasize the following point: since it is the social impact of environmentalism that critics are ostensibly concerned about, a response to their criticism should deal with environmentalist motives and rhetoric in terms of social, not psychological implications. As an individual personality trait, misanthropy is a pathology. But, as a component of a political concern, suspiciousness of the impact of peopleof their sheer numbers, as well as their ways of using resourcesis arguably a reasonable response to the fact that we live in a world of limits. In fact, it would be considered pathological – for a society as a whole, if not for all of its individual membersto do otherwise.

But there is another side to the impact of wilderness imagery and, in particular, the pristine landscape tradition. In practice, at least, the actions that it has tended to give rise to are mainly negative: the blocking of road or dam construction; the halting of logging or drilling; the withdrawal of land from economic use. What is largely absent from the visual rhetoric of environmentalism is a blueprint for positive action in those parts of the environment that are not wild. A comprehensive environmentalist program should encompass a positive vision for these aspects of the environment, and appropriate imagery should lend its rhetorical support where possible. These points have been argued eloquently in an article by Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Jackson begins with the observation that many environmentalists have made pristine wilderness “a prime candidate for ecological sainthood.” Then he says this: “To have a designated holy land and ignore the rest – to treat our wilderness as saint and Iowa farmland, or for that matter an East Saint Louis slum, otherwise – is a form of schizophrenia. Either the whole thing is holy or it isn’t.” Jackson’s article concludes with a plea to parents to educate their children in the appreciation of agricultural landscapes. As examples of how such education might be accomplished, the article offers the photographs of Terry Evans: Kansas farmlands and prairies shown in aerial views, in which the features of this flat land can be apprehended more readily than they would be from the ground.

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For an example of how Ansel Adams himself dealt with agricultural subjects we can turn to This Is the American Earth, the 1960 volume (reissued in 1992) with which he and his co-author Nancy Newhall inaugurated the Sierra Club’s “exhibition-format” series. This book is particularly interesting because it contains an explicitly programmatic section in which Adams’s photographs and Newhall’s text address this question: “What, to continue their renewal, do air, water, life require of man?” One of the answers is: “–Only that Man use water wisely, to help life and be helped by it.” Below these words appears an Adams photograph labeled “Irrigation, Salinas Valley, California.”

In many respects this photograph is a typical Adams panorama: a vast stretch of land extending into the far distance, framed by towering mountains in the background. And yet the actual content of this composition a geometric pattern of lettuce rows and irrigation ditches succeeding each other with mechanical regularity across the entire surface of the valley floor clearly could not be expected to have the same type of appeal that we associate with Adams’s wilderness views. For that matter, the intended meaning of this image also seems quite different from the meaning of Terry Evans’s pictures. Such difference suggest the possibility that there may be several distinct dimensions to our appreciation of the varieties of wild and cultivated landscapes. In other words, we are confronted once again with the problem of accounting for our responses to images of the environment. This problem will be addressed more systematically after we have looked at a second major category in the imagery of environmentalist rhetoric, namely, the “damaged landscape.”


Paul Messaris teaches visual communication and digital media at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

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