Monday, May 19, 2008

Natural Visions

Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Dunaway's book looks at imagery of environmentalism in the twentieth century, examining how photographers and filmmakers participated in and were funded by organizations both governmental and non-governmental whose mandate was to foster environmental awareness. Dunaway moves from looking at a Progressive-era photographer, Herbert Gleason, who created romantic-sublime imagery of the West; to the New Deal-era documentaries of Robert Flaherty, who lamented the death of the farm family, and Pare Lorentz (whose "The Plow That Broke The Plains" provides this image of a baby with the implement in question, which Dunaway argues exemplifies Lorentz' belief that the early pioneers were like prodigal children who wrecked the land without thinking); to the Sierra Club coffee-table books by the likes of Eliot Porter, which were the brainchildren of David Brower, whose vision of a nature outside of technology and humanity directly contradicted the New Deal technophilic imagination.

Throughout, Dunaway argues that environmental reformers who used art in their appeals passed over Benjamin's anxieties about the efficacy of the mechanically reproduced work of art, choosing instead to believe that their art could create a new "ecological sublime" (shades of David Nye) which would "rejoin beauty and sublimity, turn the ordinary into the astonishing, find awe in the diminutive, seek wonder in the everyday" (212).

But my question is: does it work? Do people change their minds after seeing pictures of bugs or cows? Nye's argument was that the technological sublime operates in part by bringing people together to witness something that exemplified human progress. How could the ecological sublime take advantage of this same dynamic? Nye also argues that the technological sublime always trumps the ecological sublime - at least, the "bigger" ecological sublime, of Adams' Yosemite and the like.

Dunaway is a professor of history at Trent University in Ontario. I know he has an article in the recent American Quarterly about use of imagery in seventies environmentalism.

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