I have examined a number of collections of photographic images available on line from such sources as the National Archives, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, the J.Paul Getty Trust, the George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive, the Bettman Archives, and various state libraries and historical societies. On the basis of these reviews of photographic archives, I have assembled a collection of digitized photographs of value in the study of the environmental sciences. I use current technologies to project these images for examination by my environmental science students as they consider contemporary environmental issues. In selecting these topics in the environmental sciences, I have referred to
Living in the Environment
(Twelfth Edition) by G. Tyler Miller (Thomson, Brooks/Cole), the text book used in the Advanced Placement Environmental Science course that I teach to high school eleventh and twelfth grade students. Chapter 3 of the Miller text is entitled "Environmental History: Learning from the Past."
The overview of the American environmental movement that is provided below suggests a broad array of topics for which photographs can be used to introduce students to the environment and to generate discussion and interest. I list some specific examples of photographs that I will use to introduce environmental topics and concepts to my students. I anticipate that in the future I will expand this unit to include photographs in the following areas of the environmental sciences: land protection (national parks, national forests, and wilderness areas); extraction of natural resources (mining, lumbering, whaling, sealing, fishing); energy issues (nuclear testing, nuclear power plants, alternative energy sources); solid waste disposal (landfills, tire graveyards, recycling efforts); chemical contamination (effects of chemical pesticides and insecticides); environmental disasters (oil spills, waste lagoon leakages, fish kills, landfill contaminations, heavy metal poisoning, Superfund sites, dumping waste at sea); population issues (unequal access to basic resource needs, disease, famine, and death); pollution (air, water, and land); habitat degradation (soil erosion, desertification, wetland destruction); wildlife endangerment (direct exploitation, predator control measures, international trade in endangered species); political activism (Earth Day events, protest against use of nuclear power, the Sagebrush Rebellion); global issues (global warming, ozone depletion, acid precipitation).
Drawing on information about the American environmental movement from the sources listed below, this curriculum unit offers a careful selection of photographs to create interest in these environmental subjects. It is my hope that the selected photographic images will grab my students' interest, will "blow their socks off." As noted in the Unit Objectives, I attempt to have my students develop the ability to gather the evidence contained within photographs, to read their multiple meanings, and to develop moral stances concerning the environmental issues. There are three approaches to the photographs that must be made. They are to identify clearly the subject matter of each photograph, to regard each image as a work of art, and to interpret the ecological, geological, and environmental significance of the photograph. I project each photograph in the classroom with a brief introduction to the subject matter of the photograph or with my assessment of what the photograph shows. For example, the early photographs of Yosemite Valley are documentary landscape photographs that provided Americans a first introduction to this extraordinary valley. The piles of buffalo hides are an example of direct exploitation of a wildlife resource. The giant trees of the Pacific Northwest represent old-growth forest, one of the most vulnerable and threatened habitats in the world.
As works of art, photographs are characterized by their composition and framing, the angle of perspective, the use of light and texture, and the attention given to geometry. As evidence for concepts and principles in the physical and life sciences, the photographs can be read for their scientific content. My ultimate goal in using photographs to teach topics in environmental science is to create in my students a distinct memory for each class period. To do so, I place far greater emphasis on encouraging and developing student comments about the photographs than in lecturing or in providing more than a brief introduction to the photographic images.
Throughout the unit I make use of photographs that are paired with each other based on subject matter, artistic content, or scientific significance. I allow a significant amount of time for my students to study and discuss the first photograph in each paired group. I then project the second photograph for comparison. The pairs of images that I have selected for use typically were made by different photographers and at widely separated time periods. I am looking for, and I want my students to perceive changes - changes in people's attitudes toward nature, in the physical and biological compositions that necessarily ensue in natural areas, and in environmental health and well being. This is accomplished by posing a series of questions to my students. What is the subject matter of the photograph? How does the photographer represent the scene? What is its environmental significance? (Let's get this out on the table as quickly as possible.) What were the fundamental meanings of the photograph when it was created, and what are the meanings today? What is the photographer's attitude about what is being depicted? What can be said about the composition of the photographic image? How is light used, and texture, perspective, angle, geometry? What is your personal reaction to the photograph? How does it compare with the image with which it is paired? Are these photographs of lasting value in thinking about environmental issues or when considered strictly as works of art?
Susan Sontag writes in
(1977), "photographs are valued because they give information. They tell one what there is: they make an inventory." She further states that "photographs were seen as a way of giving information to people who do not take easily to reading." I preface many of the sections that follow with additional quotes from Sontag's
as it is a wonderful source of insights about photography and the natural and human-altered environments.