critical writing, landscape, large format

Why not eco-photography?

February 4, 2022

(This post was cross posted to View Camera Australia. The post on View Camera Australia includes David Tatnall’s images).

A fascinating and informative interview with David Tatnall by Michéla Griffith in issue 245 of the British based On Landscape magazine about the process of photographing nature with large format cameras raises an interesting question as well as some issues about natural beauty and politics and art. This is a different pathway for photography to that opened up by a poetic photography, and it is one that its roots in the tradition of landscape photography in Australia. It brings a critical perspective into a tradition that suffers from a lack of writing and debate about its raison d’etre  over and above posting images on social media.

The question raised in the interview is: Why is an eco-photography as distinct from landscape photography not widely recognized in photographic culture? Where are photography’s postcards from the Anthropocene that emerge from its encounters with the Anthropocene-in-the-making? The question is asked because there is a recognized eco-philosophy, even if remains marginal in academia; one that in Australia which has its roots in Val and Richard Routley’s The Fight for the Forest (1973) — the book that launched the struggle to protect Australia’s old growth native forests. This environmental philosophy becomes an eco-philosophy that is critical of the nature/culture dualism; explores the revaluing our relationship to nature in the context of an ecological crisis caused by climate heating in the era of the Anthropocene; and recognizes the Whanganui River in NZ as a living being and one that has been granted legal personhood.

Otway National Park, Victoria

So why is there not a recognized ecologically oriented-photography as opposed to landscape photography; an eco-photography that interrogates, expands, understands and influences our relationship with nature in transformation? An eco-photography that has affinities with an eco-philosophy’s recognition of the limitations of economics and its concern to heal a wounded world and is willing to rethink the landscape in the Anthropocene rather than default to a default reading of landscape.

We no longer live in the Holocene or the culture of the nineteenth century when relations between humans and nature seemed clear: nature was separate to humans and it was natural, beautiful, untouched. In the 21st century humans can no longer be defined as separate to the world around us. It is also recognized that a wilderness landscape photography of an uncontaminated and entirely pure nature in Australia was blind to the aboriginal occupation of the land for 50-60,000 thousand years prior to the British colonization in the late 18th century. With the wide recognition that one of the consequences of economic development has been widespread environmental damage to the country and the native old growth forests and the emergence of an Anthropocene or planetary aesthetics, then why no eco-photography?

In his interview Tatnall says that his approach to photographing nature has its roots in his early desire to see more green on the map meaning more national parks that protected the land. He adds that this desire to preserve nature through national parks was strengthened by the campaign to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania in the 1970s and the threats to the native forests in East Gippsland in Victoria in the 1980s.

He adds that the protection of Australia’s unique landscape is important, and that his motivation for his photography is being able to say something about our fragile environment by making a photograph that has an impact and meaning. This “saying something about” is based on an understanding of place that comes from spending time in that place — in Tatnall’s words “going into nature is to be in nature and if I make a photograph, it’s a bonus.”

This implies an awareness that nature has become enmeshed within our understandings of what it is to be human, and it sounds like an eco-photography, rather than a landscape photography. I would suggest that such a distinction is plausible, reasonable and necessary in the light of the body of work produced by Joyce Campbell. An eco-photography that is aware the signature of the Anthropocene appears in the geological strata: in the ice cores of the rapidly melting Arctic, the agricultural sediments accumulating in the Yellow Sea, the shifting of atmospheric gases in Antarctica and the bushfires in Australia and California.

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