Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Gisela Parak: From ‘Topographic’ to ‘Environmental’ – A Look into the Past and the Presence of the New Topographics Movement

To refer to this article use this url:

Eco-images as Political Agitation

Images are defined as ‘eco-images’ when they are specifically used within the framework of a political campaign and are intended to shake up the general public and appeal to the latter’s ecological conscience.[7] There were numerous examples of such eco-images in the emerging environmental movement of the sixties and seventies but these circulated mainly outside the discourse of artistic photography and the official art scene, such as the Land Art movement and photoconceptual work of the 1960s.[8] In reference to this, the example that was most discussed in detail is the series of illustrated books presented by the Sierra Club with its prominent photographers Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Charles Pratt.[9]

However, there were and are, time and time again, always interesting overlaps in areas with artistic, photojournalistic or activist photographic focus. W. Eugene Smith’s series Minamata (1971-75), first published in book form in 1975, about the consequential damage of mercury poisoning to a Japanese fishing village, is one of the first visual interpretations of the issue in the medium of journalistic pictorial report. The book illustrates in dismal but memorable images the human suffering of the village and shows the physical deformations of those affected in dramatic pictures. Secondly, the pictorial program Documerica, which was associated with the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1971 to 1977, offers an early example of photographic imagery to raise environmental conscience. Following the successful RA/FSA Photography of the 1930s, Documerica was intended to publicize the newly introduced environmental protection measures for the American public and encouraged the media to disseminate its images. A show entitled Our Only World originated from the program that was inaugurated at the Smithsonian Institution in 1974, but also sent to the 1976 World Environment Exhibition in Tokyo to promote the role of American environmental policy as a forerunner of and role model for international action.[10] Although the impression of a pedagogical, educational intention dominates within the overall orientation of Documerica commissions, the program also produced countless artistic photographs of a high quality, which developed from the photographers’ own investigations. (figs. 1 and 2)


Fig. 1 Arthur Tress, Sewer Pipe Ready for Installation in Grant City, Staten Island. All Staten Island is Experiencing a Building Boom, a Result of the Completion of the Verrazano-Narrow Bridge, June 1973. © National Archives, College Park, MD, 412-DA-5376


Fig. 2 Cornelius Keyes, Dust Storm Rises Over Phoenix on Labor Day, 1972. No Rain Had Fallen in the Area for 153 Days, June 1972. © National Archives, College Park, MD, 412-DA-1586