Reviewed by Cabell King
For several years of my childhood, a poster of Ansel Adams’ black and white portrait of Yosemite’s Half Dome hung on the wall in my home. Finis Dunaway’s engaging history situates this photograph within various twentieth century imaginings of the natural world. The photograph, he reminds us, by its composition and its frame, communicates an environmental aesthetic. The book contends that images have been a political tool, well intentioned propaganda in cultural and legislative debates about the definition and responsible legislation of natural space.
Dunaway’s account is a thorough discussion of a few significant aesthetic campaigns, rather than an unbroken narrative of the century. At the center of the text are engaging studies of New Deal documentary films directed by Pare Lorentz and Robert Flaherty and of the Sierra Club’s coffee table books (1952-1969). The films make natural disasters – the Dust Bowl, Mississippi flooding, and land erosion – occasion to assert the power of nature and its simultaneous vulnerability. In contrast to preceding nature photography, they acknowledge complex natural systems of interdependence. The coffee table books, a particular project of Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower, delivered wilderness to American homes by way of high quality glossy photographs. With some notable exceptions, nature is depicted absent human interference. In both cases Dunaway identifies an ecological gospel, delivered in the form of a jeremiad sermon. Particularly compelling are Dunaway’s observations about communities excluded from this gospel: at various turns, racial minorities, laborers, the poor, and non-Americans.
Images played decisive roles in New Deal politics and in the passage of later legislation, like 1964’s Wilderness Act. And the book begins by introducing Herbert Gleason, Congregational minister turned nature photographer, whose images figured prominently in the debate over damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide hydroelectric power to San Francisco. Dunaway discusses each case carefully and avoids manufacturing a facile narrative of America’s changing nature aesthetic. Still, it is fascinating to read about changing understandings of the sublimity of nature, recognition of ecosystems, the development of a particular wilderness aesthetic. In the last chapter and epilogue Dunaway suggests that a new aesthetic is emerging that recognizes nature as bound up in human activity, that wilderness coexists with the urban.
Complemented with rich photographic illustrations, this book introduces several new characters to the history of American environmental reform. It is in the epilogue’s discussion of the photography of Charles Pratt that we discover the text’s best examples of visual analysis (p. 200). There has been some of this before, notably regarding Eliot Porter’s book In Wildness (p. 160), but it is striking in these moments that a text about the power of images is often primarily concerned with the lives of those behind the camera. Dunaway has a talent for discussing the images themselves that is not often enough exercised.
This is an excellent book. Made curious by this text, I have tracked down several of the films discussed. It is worthy praise of an historian and commentator that he can get his readers excited to explore primary sources. I am glad to see that Dunaway is apparently working on a kind of sequel, From the Atomic Bomb to Global Warming: The Environmental Crisis in American Visual Culture.