Conservation Photography – A Brief History

Part one in the series of Photography and Conservation.

by Colleen Smith

Conservation and photography appear as two distinct fields, but their combined impact can be profound. Photography has developed as a powerful medium of conservation, since the 1860’s when Carleton Watkins used his persuasive images to successfully encourage the creation of the Yosemite Grant in 1864 – the first instance of park land being set aside for preservation and public use. This in turn led to the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890.  Armed with a mammoth plate camera that used 18”x22” glass plate negatives, and a stereoscopic camera he traveled to Yosemite and established himself as a master of landscape photography. The 30 mammoth plate and 100 stereoscopic negatives helped influence the US Congress to pass the legislation protecting the Yosemite Valley. Other photographers of the time had similar success in environmental conservation; William Henry Jackson was pivotal as a member of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, which led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Ansel Adams, best know for the Zone System, was primarily known as an environmentalist first, and a photographer second. Taught to live a life guided by a social responsibility to man and nature, he received his first camera in 1916 (a Kodak Brownie) while visiting Yosemite. He spent that winter learning darkroom techniques, and then returned to Yosemite a year later with a better camera and a tripod. At the age of 17 he joined the Sierra Club – a group dedicated to preserving the natural world’s wonders and resources – and was a life long member, serving on the board of directors for 37 years. “I believe in beauty. I believe in stones in the water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.” He decided that the purpose of his art, whether photography or music, was to reveal that beauty to others and to inspire them to the same calling.

Upper Falls of the Yellowstone, 115 feet. Photographed by William Henry Jackson.

Yosemite Falls, from the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa Co. Photographed by Carleton Watkins