Photography, Environmental

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Photography, Environmental


Environmental photography refers to photographs of the natural environment for artistic, research, or monitoring purposes.

Photography of natural settings can inspire feelings of wonder. Alternately, photographs of oil-soaked birds in the aftermath of a seagoing spill, a toxic dumpsite, or a flaming oil reservoir in Kuwait following a 1991 Iraq incursion can inspire entirely different feelings. Environmental photography has inspired the creation of Yellowstone National Park and, when used to record images of the same site over time, has revealed the effects of climate change.

In the era of environmental photographers such as the American photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984), photography recorded images on an emulsion bonded to photographic film. Now, in the era of digital photography, images can be sent electronically from one location to another, and can be digitally manipulated. Environmental photography is even possible from Earth-orbiting satellites at a resolution that allows incidents of environmental degradation and natural events such as algal blooms at sea to be detected and tracked over time.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Environmental photography in the United States dates back to the early 1870s. Then, William Henry Jackson (1843–1942) was part of a survey of the Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountains. His photographs of the area were the first taken of the region. Despite trying conditions and cumbersome equipment, Jackson was able to photograph the Grand Tetons, the Old Faithful geyser, and the Yellowstone region. These images were instrumental in swaying the U.S. Congress to declare the Yellowstone region the country’s first National Park in 1872. Jackson continued his photographic pursuits, capturing images of the long-abandoned, Native American cliff dwellings in Colorado’s Mesa Verde, which later became a national park as well.

Beginning in the 1920s, Ansel Adams began to market his photographs of regions including Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. His sharply focused, starkly contrasted, black and white photos proved to be very popular and revealed the national beauty of the United States to many people. Adam’s photos brought environmental photography into the mainstream. His images have maintained their allure; at a Sotheby’s auction of his prints held in New York in 2006, one print sold for nearly $610,000.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, when drought and poor farming practices combined to turn the Great Plains of the United States into a “Dust Bowl,” thousands migrated from the area in search of work and food. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) documented this exodus, focusing on the environmental impacts of this condition on the people. Bourke-White, who later rose to prominence for her work during World War II (1939–1945), also photographed scenes of the industrialization of Russia.

Television, which gained popularity in the 1950s, provided a new outlet for environmental photography. The use of television and movie cameras to record environmental images, especially as the modern environmental movement took off in the 1960s, began to reach a wide audience of viewers. Mass distribution of environmental photography intensified with the advent of the Internet and remains popular today. For example, in 2008, Web sites such as National Geographic offered videos (without charge) via its site that pertained to a variety of environmental issues. Among the many topics covered were: a look at the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl in the Ukraine 20 years after the accident; a


DEAD ZONE: An area of ocean in which nothing can live except bacteria that flourish on fertilizer from agricultural runoff.

DEFORESTATION: A reduction in the area of a forest resulting from human activity.

RESOLUTION: Pixels per square inch on a computer-generated display or photograph; a higher resolution results in a clearer picture.

new tree replanting project in Haiti designed to reforest one of the world’s most barren areas; renewed efforts to save Lake Erie from deterioration; images of the devastation of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia; scenes of drought and dust storms in Australia; and the destruction of wildfires in the western United States.

Satellite Imagery

As satellites were launched into orbit around Earth beginning in the 1950s, satellites containing sophisticated cameras allowed large swaths of the surface to be photographed. Images can now be taken to detect different wavelengths emitted from the surface, and the WorldView satellite launched in 2007 is able to distinguish two objects on the surface that are separated by only 20 in (50 cm). The satellite is capable of photographing 290,000 square mi (750,000 square km) each day.

Satellite images have been used to do such things as determine the rate of deforestation in the Amazon rain forest, to detect algal blooms and hypoxic areas (dead zones) in the ocean, and to document the disruption of the sea bed caused by a method of fishing called bottom trawling

Recording Climate Change

Another use of environmental photography has been to document the effects of climate change on natural features. A well-known example is the series of pictures taken of various glaciers in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. The pictures document the retreat of the glaciers as a consequence of a warming environment, and are evocative evidence of the reality of global warming.

The Extreme Ice Survey, created by photojournalist James Balog, was begun in 2006. It uses time-lapse photography to record changes to glaciers in places such as Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, Greenland, Iceland, Bolivia, and the Alps. The project uses 26 cameras to record images hourly during daylight hours. Ultimately, the project will release a documentary film illuminating its findings in spring 2010.

Impacts and Issues

Environmental photography has helped increase environmental awareness by visually displaying both the beauty of nature and the consequences to that beauty of accidental and deliberate environmental degradation. Orbiting satellites are able to photograph nearly all of Earth’s surface, leaving little surface environmental damage undetected.

Environmental photography can be combined with measurements of temperature and other parameters taken at the site of the photograph to provide a detailed survey of the site at that moment in time. When similar information is gathered over time, trends can become evident. In this way, photographs have been valuable in demonstrating the changes taking place in the natural world, which can be correlated with increasing atmospheric temperature.


American photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984) is best known for his dramatic black and white photographs of the American West, particularly the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley. A native of San Francisco, Adams lived through the great earthquake of 1906, but was permanently scarred by a broken nose suffered when he fell during an aftershock. The teenaged Adams fared poorly in traditional schools and completed his education with the help of private tutors.

He began a lifelong association with the Yosemite Valley during a family trip in 1916, and three years later became an active member of the Sierra Club. Adams trained as a concert pianist but, motivated in large part by mountain trips, developed a passion for photography, and in 1930 decided to pursue it as a career. One of his early books, the limited edition volume Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, was assembled during the 1930s and is considered to have been instrumental in the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in California. Adams also worked as a commercial photographer and spent time in New York City. He wrote three seminal books on photographic technique that remain highly respected among modern photographers: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. Adams was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1968 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

See Also Geospatial Analysis; Glacial Retreat; Global Warming; Maps and Atlases; National Park Service Organic Act



Chiras, Daniel D., John P. Reganold, and Oliver S. Owen. Natural Resource Conservation: Management for a Sustainable Future. New York: Prentice-Hall, 2004.

Morgan-Griffiths, Lauris. Ansel Adams: Landscapes of the American West. London: Quercus, 2008.

Parker, Lee. Environmental Communication: Messages, Media, and Methods. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 2005.

Web sites

Extreme Ice Survey. (accessed June 3, 2008).

National Geographic. (accessed June 3, 2008).

National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Repeat Photography of Glaciers.” (accessed May 2, 2008).