Advertising U.S. Environmentalism – Part 3: The Damaged Landscape

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

The pristine landscape is still a flourishing genre, represented today by images in environmentalist publications, posters, and wallpaper. However, in the world of fine-art photography, this genre has come to be seen as an anachronism, a nostalgic retreat from the reality of massive human impact on the land. As far back as 1992, at an Ansel Adams Scholars Conference, one of the participants recalled that when he was in graduate school, fifteen years before, Adams’s pictures “were seen as embarrassingly sentimental and old-fashioned,” while Adams himself “seemed to be the Norman Rockwell of landscape photographyextremely popular, extremely successful, but by then no longer important as an artist” (Hagen, 1993, p. 97). The basic concern behind this attitude had been defined more pointedly even earlier, in a 1977 statement by John Szarkowski: “It is difficult today for an ambitious young photographer to photograph a pristine snowcapped mountain without including the parking lot in the foreground as a self-protecting note of irony” (Szarkowski, 1977, p. xii). Thus Ted Orland, one of Ansel Adams’s most distinguished disciples, has made images of Yosemite’s “Half Dome” (a monolith much photographed by Adams) framed by foreground close-ups of domed trash cans. His label for one of these pictures is “One and a Half Dome.”

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Among landscape photographers oriented toward the worlds of museums and galleries or colleges and universities, documentation of human impact on the environment is now a dominant preoccupation. In the world of more direct environmentalist advocacy, visual depictions of altered landscapes (or, more specifically, of land damaged by human alteration) have been major rhetorical tools since the 1930s, if not earlier. If we had to pick the most obvious starting point of this tradition, a good candidate would be Pare Lorentz’s 1936 film The Plow that Broke the Plains, produced as part of a promotional campaign for government plans to reform U.S. farming practices. The film begins with lyrical images of uncultivated grasslands and ends with Dust Bowl devastation: skies black with clouds of dust; bare, scorched soils; suffering people. The damage wrought by imprudent agricultural practices was also a major theme in Lorentz’s next film, The River (1938), which contains many striking images of soil erosion, and similar images are present in the extensive collection of Depression-era photographs produced under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration.

Among the most memorable of these FSA images are Dorothea Lange’s “Tractored Out” (1938), a bleak vision of parched irrigation furrows leading to an abandoned Texas farmhouse, and Arthur Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm” (1936), in which an Oklahoma farmer and his two children are seen running to a shed through a sea of wind-swept dust. Although Rothstein’s picture was apparently a restaging of the original event – or perhaps precisely because the photographer was able to compose the scene to his own specificationsthis photograph has become, according to Rothstein himself, “perhaps the most widely reproduced image of the twentieth century” (Rothstein, 1986, p. 37). Years later it appeared in Life magazine (in an issue on “The wild West”) with the following caption: “It wasn’t the plow that broke the plains. It was greedy, ignorant farmers who in less than 50 years turned 97 million acres of the richest soil on the planet into a great Dust Bowl….” (Life, April 5, 1993, p. 27). (The fact that the farmers are said to have been “greedy”instead of simply having responded to the demands of an ever-increasing populationis a sobering indication of the extent to which some of the more uncharitable and counterproductive elements of environmentalist rhetoric have entered the broader culture.)

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As Derek Bouse has pointed out, the strategy that Pare Lorenz used in The Plow that Broke the Plains a contrast between an early, undefiled landscape and a later, damaged one has since become a common feature of environmentalist advocacy. This strategy has been evaluated by David Brower, the first Executibve Director of the Sierra Club, in connection environmentalist depictions of Glen Canyon. The loss of Glen Canyon, which was submerged under the waters of Lake Powell following the 1963 completion of a dam on the Colorado, was blamed by many environmentalists on insufficient public awareness. After the deed had already been done, David Brower edited a book of Eliot Porter’s photographs of the original site, which was published in the Sierra Club’s exhibit-format series under the title The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado (1963). The book’s declared premise was that, if only more people had known how beautiful Glen Canyon was, the public would not have allowed the dam to go up. The book’s ultimate aim, then, was to encourage greater awareness of comparable future situations. In a retrospective assessment of the book’s impact, Brower compares it to a film by Larry Dawson. The book and the film had similar goals, but their methods were different. Based on a series of slides that Phil Pennington and Chuck Washburn had made both before and after the closing of the dam, the film documented the replacement of the original splendors of Glen Canyon by the “dead body of water named Lake Powell” (Brower, 1991, p. 56). According to Brower, audiences were grief-stricken by this contrast. Referring to the original slides on which this film was based, he says: “If you are a grown man and don’t want to cry, or see other grown men cry, avoid [them] at all costs” (Brower, 1991, p. 55).

Brower presents this story as evidence of the power of the positive-negative (or pristine-damaged) contrast. But we should not take the effectiveness of this strategy for granted. To Brower’s eyes, Lake Powell is a “dead body of water,” and this perception must have been shared by Dawson’s audience. It is quite clear, however, that to other people, whose preconceptions may perhaps be different, Lake Powell is actually an attractive spectacle in its own right. For example, I remember that it was featured prominently, as a panoramic aerial image very much in line with the pristine-landscape tradition, in a tourist brochure I once received on a trip to Utah. The potential disparity in interpretations that this example suggests came to the fore in another dispute over dam construction, a few years after the Glen Canyon episode. In 1965 and 1966, Congress was considering plans for two more Colorado dams, this time in the Grand Canyon. Responding to environmentalists’ outrage at the possibility that yet another set of beautiful places might be obliterated, proponents of the project argued that higher water levels behind the two dams would actually make the remaining attractions in the vicinity more accessible to the ordinary tourist. This argument was countered by David Brower in a print ad in which a picture of the Grand Canyon was accompanied by this question: “SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?” The ad was enormously successful, and, together with other ads by Brower and the Sierra Club,. it led to a major letter-writing campaign opposing the dams. In the end, the environmentalists won the day, but we should not discount the possibility that, at another time, in a place less well known than the Grand Canyon, the kind of perspective represented by this projects’ supporters might mesh more readily with the views of the broader public.


At issue here is not simply the question of what exactly constitutes a damaged landscape – a matter on which opinions will obviously differ. Rather, the more pertinent problem for our purposes has to do with the relationship between human impact and visual appeal. Even someone who opposes dam construction and knows all about the environmental degradation that dams can cause might still find the spectacle of a place like Lake Powell aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, it does not seem too far-fetched to suppose that, if the Grand Canyon dams had finally been built, tourist brochures might now be displaying pictures of the artificial lakes to which they would have given rise. Similar difficulties crop up with some other examples of damaged landscape imagery. One of the most prominent visual chroniclers of human impact on the land is Edward Burtynsky, whose work is featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s movie Manufactured Landscapes (2006). Burtynsky is famous for his large-scale photographs of landscapes that have been radically transformed by industrial activity. He is an active environmentalist, and his photographs are certainly capable of evoking grief, revulsion, even horror. Some of his depictions of the effects of mine tailings look like visions of hell. And yet, viewed more abstractly, for their colors and forms rather than their content, these images have a powerful if unearthly aesthetic appeal. It seems entirely plausible that a viewer who did not know what they represented could easily see them as intriguing examples of abstract art.

Promotional photograph to be used only in conjunction with the film MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, a Zeitgeist Films release.

Promotional photograph to be used only in conjunction with the film MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, a Zeitgeist Films release.

As with the case of Lake Powell, then, Burtynsky’s photographs illustrate how uncertain the connection can be between aesthetic response and environmental implications. But there is also an important difference between the two situations. Tourist-brochure images of Lake Powell can appeal to the same sentiments that we feel in the presence of untouched wilderness. The abstract appeal of Burtynsky’s images, however, has very little to do with that kind of aesthetic satisfaction. This is a point worth examining in more detail. While beauty may not guarantee environmental integrity, the motivating power of aesthetic considerations may well be crucial to the achievement of a well-ordered environment. Conversely, it has been argued that “neglect of the aesthetic leads inevitably to neglect of the pragmatically beneficial aspects of nature” (Jussim & Lindquist-Cock, 1985, p. 139). Even if we do not agree that there is anything inevitable about the process, this is a productive formulation. It leads directly to a crucial question: Exactly what sort of aesthetic satisfaction do we get out of our relationship with the natural environment? If we can arrive at a reasonable answer to this question, we might also gain a clearer understanding of how aesthetic concerns might contribute to more enlightened environmentalist practice.

Discussions of aesthetics frequently distinguish between our experience of nature and our response to art. Not everyone finds this distinction acceptable, of course, and writers such as Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson have tried to argue for a single view of aesthetic pleasure that encompasses both sources. It may well be true that, at some level of abstraction, these two kinds of experiences begin to look the same. However, for our purposes the possibility of differences between them cannot be overlooked. Assuming, then, that the kinds of rewards we get from art do not entirely overlap with those we get from nature, let us begin with a brief look at the former. There are at least two possible components in the aesthetic experience of art: on the one hand, the vicarious gratification provided by a surrogate experience; on the other hand, the admiration that we feel in the presence of skill. Perhaps the purest example of the first of these is pornography: Its whole purpose is to give vicarious satisfaction (of the audience’s “prurient interests,” as the Supreme Court has put it), and it seems unlikely that better scripts, camerawork, or acting would make much difference to consumers. A pure example of the second component might be an abstract painting: If there is no representational subject matter to serve as the basis of a surrogate experience, appreciation of skill (the qualities of lines, colors, shapes, overall design) must be the sole source of aesthetic appeal. Obviously, most art falls somewhere between these two extremes.

These two components of the aesthetic appreciation of art are self-evidently also present in the specific case of artistic representations of nature. Many travel snapshots taken by tourists seem especially dependent on vicarious emotional experience for their effect, while some of the work produced by photographers such as Edward Burtynsky invites the same type of assessment that we might apply to a truly abstract image. In fact, the unsettling, even disturbing quality of Burtynsky’s mine-tailing photographs can be seen as arising precisely from a discrepancy between their impressive skill as abstract designs and the vicarious revulsion that we may feel if we imagine ourselves in the situations they depict. However, a fuller understanding of the aesthetics of images of nature requires that we look directly at the aesthetics of nature itself.

We have already noted one kind of emotional gratification that is often credited to nature, namely, the sense of refuge from human troubles, of retreat into a sphere of existence where those troubles seem insignificant. This experience can also be provided vicariously, of course, by artistic representations (i.e., surrogates) of nature. Moreover, it could be argued that this experience is no different from what happens when we use an escapist movie or TV program to “leave our troubles behind.” But for our purposes, at least, this argument goes too far. It is one thing to escape from unrewarding social circumstances into a vicarious experience of more rewarding ones, and quite another to escape out of society altogether. The former possibility does not seem to have any special implications for the issues we have been considering here, whereas the latter, as we have already seen, most certainly does.

A very different aspect of the appeal of nature and, in particular, of natural landscapes has been discussed in the work of Jay Appleton and other writers influenced by his approach. Appleton has advanced the theory that our preferences for some kinds of landscapes may be shaped by biology rather than just culture. This theory assumes that evolutionary forces may have predisposed all humans to favor certain environmental features that are beneficial to survival (or, at least, were beneficial during the past evolution of the species). The types of features that Appleton and his followers have investigated most thoroughly are two: high points in a landscape, from which a viewer would be able to survey the surrounding terrain and assess its opportunities and dangers; and places of shelter or concealment, from which a person could look out without being seen. These two types of features are usually referred to as “prospect” (e.g., Thomas Cole’s “The Last of The Mohicans,” below left) and “refuge” (e.g., Cole’s “Evening in Arcady,” below right) in the literature. According to this literature, an innate human interest in places of prospect and refuge may be part of the reason that landscapes with hills or mountains are often preferred to flat ones, landscapes containing stands of trees or bushes are often preferred to those lacking any tall vegetation, and so forth. Both prospect and refuge are characterized by the fact the primary benefits they confer are visual (seeing; not being seen), but the theory of innate preferences could also be extended to environmental features with other kinds of primary benefits. For example, we might want to use this theory as a partial explanation for the seemingly widespread appeal of landscapes containing lakes, streams, or other sources of fresh water.

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Appleton’s theory has been a useful tool in such fields as art history and landscape design; it is less clear whether it has any significant implications for environmentalist practice. The environmental features that the theory is concerned with may have been crucial to the human species during most of its past, but they are not a very reliable predictor of environmental suitability in the sharply different social, economic, and technological conditions that human beings have created in their more recent history. If anything, then, the innate aesthetic tastes assumed by the theory may be factors that have to be counteracted in imagery designed for environmentalist purposes. For example, as we have already seen, writers and photographers concerned about environmental issues have felt a need for education that would encourage viewers to shed their prejudices against the flat, treeless landscapes of the western plains, an environment that might have been ill-suited to the lives of our evolutionary ancestors but is now an integral part of a complex, highly-differentiated society.

Although the assumption of innateness in Appleton’s theory is controversial by contemporary academic standards, perhaps the most contentious issue in the aesthetics of nature has to do with another type of aesthetic appeal, namely, the appreciation of skill. This issue brings us to a direct comparison between nature and art. Specifically, it has often been argued that, whereas appreciation of skill is a major component of the experience of art, it is irrelevant to the experience of wild nature, because nature is not the product of human activity. Since there is no artist, the argument goes, considerations of skill do not apply. Moreover, some writers who have taken this position have also gone a step further: On the assumption that skill appreciation is actually the defining component of artistic experience, they have denied that there is any significant relationship between that experience and our responses to nature. (A similar premise leads many people to deny that pornography is art.)

The standard objection to this view of the difference between nature and art is to point out that many people experience nature as the handiwork of a divine creator and may derive aesthetic satisfaction in contemplating the excellence of that handiwork. The Christian tradition, in particular, abounds in statements like the following, by the 18th-century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards: “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and in all nature.” Such sentiments have unquestionably played an important part in the development of environmentalist consciousness in the United States, although they are encountered much less frequently now than they were in early environmentalist writing.

Still, while the view of nature as sacred handiwork rarely appears explicitly in contemporary environmentalist thought, there is a related attitude whose continuing relevance seems more secure. In the writings of John Muir, spiritual exaltation at the glory of creation is often combined with an intellectual delight in studying the workings of nature. (This was a combination that Muir had inherited from such intellectual forebears as Emerson.) For Muir, as for previous writers, interest in understanding the natural world flowed logically from a feeling of reverence towards it. But the explicitly religious element in this combination is obviously not a prerequisite of the more intellectual pleasure described by Muir. It is well known that this kind of pleasure is a common component of the scientific attitude towards nature. Moreover, scientists’ own descriptions of the motivations for their work often focus on this aspect of the scientific experience and specifically compare it to the gratification derived from art. For example, Lee Stokes, a noted mid-20th-century geologist, once gave the following justification for studying the way in which natural land forms are created: “Scenery is like art, the more we study it the more we enjoy it. The comparison goes even deeper, however, for just as there are different forms of art, so there are different types of natural landscapes…. In these times when nearly everyone travels far and wide a little knowledge of ‘scientific seeing’ will add greatly to a person’s enjoyment and profit” (Stokes, 1969, pp. 1-2).

In an attempt to give a more precise account of this analogy between the understanding of nature and the enjoyment of art, Allen Carlson has argued that the common element linking the two kinds of experience is skill appreciation. In the case of art, we derive pleasure from witnessing the expertise of some other person. In the case of the scientific appreciation of nature, it is our own sense of intellectual mastery – our ability to discern the underlying causes and patterns beneath the surface facts of reality – that gives us satisfaction. The potential significance, in environmentalist terms, of this aspect of the aesthetics of nature should be evident. The skills of “scientific seeing” described by Stokes might make a viewer more skeptical of the surface charm in the Cuyahoga Valley scenery portrayed by Robert Glenn Ketchum; more knowledgeable about the reasons for the colors in Edward Burtynsky’s mine-ravaged landscapes; and even, perhaps, somewhat more immune to tourist brochure depictions of places like Lake Powell. Such possibilities could serve as useful premises for the future course of visual education about environmental issues.


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

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