Conservation Photography’s Long, Hopeful History of Saving the World

Ansel Adams
Image by Ansel Adams, as part of a series of National Park photos, via the US National Archives.

Modern outdoor photographers know Ansel Adams’ work. They can recognize his crisp monochromatic portraits of America’s jagged landscapes from a mile away. But many aren’t aware of his long, proud history as a conservationist, who advocated for the protection of the natural world. In fact, in the United States and around the world, outdoor photographers — including Adams, but there are so, so many more — have played and continue to play an important role in the effort to conserve and preserve forests and other natural resources.

The National Park Service, which was officially founded in August of 1916, began with just one wildlife reserve — Yellowstone — which was designated the first national park over 40 years earlier. In the intervening years, many more parks were established to protect large swaths of the U.S. from deforestation and excessive hunting of wildlife during a time of national expansion. Among them was Yosemite, whose establishment in 1864 is largely credited to a photographer named Carleton Watkins.

Watkins’ stereographic photos of the park were some of the images of Yosemite that made it back to the East Coast.

“Partly on the strength of Watkins’s photographs, President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1864 bill that declared the valley inviolable, thus paving the way for the National Parks system,” according to the Getty Museum.

carleton watkins
Photo of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins, via the New York Public Library.

Adams, later, would pick up the torch, continuing to advocate for expanded funding for the park, a part of which now bears his name.

Watkins and Adams were both outdoor photographers, primarily — but they were also, specifically, conservation photographers, long before the field was actually solidified. Like many other, more niche branches of the medium, conservation photography, which was formally realized in 2005, is a kind of outdoor photography, which focuses on both the beauty of nature, and the need to protect it.

“…The typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower. The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background,” explained National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. “This doesn’t mean there’s no room for beautiful pictures, in fact we need beautiful images just as much as the issues. It does mean that the images exist for a reason; to save the Earth while we still can.”

Before it was fully recognized as a specific medium, photographers who love the outdoors have been advocating for its protection. Since the 1970s, Art Wolfe has been documenting the rapidly-vanishing natural world in his dozens of books, exposing the general public to the realities of pollution and deforestation.

In addition to being about public outreach and awareness, conversation photography remains a necessary part of the political and ecological conversation.

In his TED talk, Paul Nicklen shared images of regal, and explained why his photography of animals and wildlife was so meaningful — because as news of global climate change begins to become more and more pervasive, the voting, purchasing, driving, polluting masses begin to tune it out more and more.

“What I’m trying to do with my work is put faces to this,” Nicklen explains, “And I want people to understand…that we could lose an entire ecosystem.”

Internationally,  conservation photographers have been lobbying for further protections of endangered spaces and animals whose habitats and food sources are being threatened by human impacts, including climate change. The International League of Conservation Photographers seeks to put the unique perspective of outdoor photographers — who often venture to the far reaches of threatened wilderness — to work to “further environmental and cultural conservation through communication initiatives that create vital content and disseminate conservation messages to a wide variety of audiences.”

Which is what conservation photography is, at its heart, all about — and has always been all about. It’s about both showing off what the photographer loves, and also about protecting and saving it, both through public awareness and political action.

“Making these pictures without losing hope is really, really difficult” said ILCP founder Cristina Mittermeier in her CreativeLive class on the subject of conservation photography, “[but] one of the really wonderful things about this kind of photography is that it really can change the course of history. If you make pictures that are compelling enough, that tell good stories, those pictures can really influence the way that policy is written.”

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.