Shooting Nature: Images & Environmental History

Viger Square, Montreal, QC, about 1907, Neurdein Frères photographer. MP-0000.840.6. Courtesy of McCord Museum, goo.gl/z9zgmg.

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The following is a supersized post developed by M. Blake Butler, Haley Kalous, and Maggie O’Riordan Ross, History graduate students at the University of Western Ontario. Having written short essays on images for their environmental history course, they asked Finis Dunaway, author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images, to offer comments and an introduction to their post.

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Introduction

by Finis Dunaway

If you look through canonical works of environmental history, you will find plenty of pictures but little visual analysis. In most cases, the images are there to provide straightforward evidence of what the past looked like, or to confirm the argument the author has already made using more conventional sources. Only rarely are images considered active participants in the environmental past.

The following three essays, all written for Alan MacEachern’s graduate course on environmental history, provide wonderful examples of what can happen when historians treat images as more than mere illustrations. Alan asked the students to select an image of their choice and write a short essay (~750 words) that considers the picture as primary evidence for interpreting environmental history.[1] The students found fascinating images, all still photographs: of Montreal’s Viger Square in the first decade of the twentieth century; of women gathering lupins along a train track thirty kilometers west of Toronto in 1927; and a recent image of sheep grazing at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

Image-based assignments push students to look closely at the visual evidence, to refrain from quick judgments and ponder the multiple meanings conveyed by the picture. The art historian Jennifer L. Roberts describes such assignments as “creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention. . . . Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”[2]

The essays by Maggie O’Riordan Ross, M. Blake Butler, and Haley Kalous demonstrate the value of slowing down and paying careful attention to pictures. Each student uses a single image to address broader themes in environmental history. They place the selected images within larger cultural contexts, including the City Beautiful Movement, the interplay between modernity and anti-modernism, and the history of war memorials and tourism. Yet they do not let the contexts overpower and overdetermine the meanings of the images. In each essay, you will find analysis of surprising visual details—an architectural style, a woman’s gesture, the juxtaposition of a sheep and a sign—that will cause you to look again at the pictures and contemplate their rich, complex meanings. Although these essays do not delve much into questions of circulation and reception, further research (and more space!) could offer exciting opportunities to examine how period viewers responded to these and related images.

Each photograph captures a specific place and moment in time. Yet, as these perceptive essays reveal, the images also contain residues of other times and places. O’Riordan Ross, Butler, and Kalous show us how visual sources can shed new light on the human place in nature.

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Viger Square, Montreal, QC, about 1907, Neurdein Frères photographer. McCord Museum, MP-0000.840.6, goo.gl/z9zgmg.

Viger Square and Montreal’s City Beautiful Movement

by Maggie O’Riordan Ross

This image, taken by Louis-Antonin Neurdein, a Paris-based photographer, shows Montreal’s urban elites enjoying a summer day in Viger Square. In the background is Place Viger, a combined rail station and hotel on Rue Saint-Antoine East. It peeks through the deciduous trees and interrupts the calm scene in the park, offering the viewer a glimpse into the city’s busy downtown core. Instead of being captured for private enjoyment, this photograph was intended for a public audience. Louis-Antonin was the famous co-owner of the successful Neurdein Company, which reproduced images like this one on postcards and sold them at tourist locations.[3] Although Neurdein’s intentions were economic, as he was photographing scenes of French Canada that he believed visitors would want to send to friends and family members, Viger Square, Montreal, QC can shed light on early twentieth-century attitudes to nature. Following the ideals of the City Beautiful movement, this postcard highlights nature’s potential restorative powers for middle and upper-class city dwellers, suggesting that parks provided the proper conditions for appropriate urban socialization.

Although many Canadian postcards were printed during the tourist boom in the decade prior to the First World War, Neurdein’s Viger Square stands out. Most North American postcard images at the time showcased either natural beauty or human construction, but rarely both at once. This suggests that Canadian photographers believed that true “nature” was found in locations away from industrialization and human interference. Such a vision of nature linked to the conservation movement in North America, which saw first-wave environmentalists establish national parks, or regions of sanctioned-off nature. Signs of human presence were understood to be antithetical to these areas of seemingly unspoiled wilderness. While this was a popular view of nature at the time, it was by no means the only way of understanding one’s relationship with the natural world.

This “unspoiled” vision of nature was challenged by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ City Beautiful movement. Concerned by rapid industrialization and urban overpopulation in their cities, upper-class Americans used aesthetic means to further societal goals. This movement, at once environmental and political, imbued polluted cities with elements of nature, including parks and boulevards. Natural beauty, with its balance and harmony, was mirrored by newly-commissioned buildings in the neoclassic and baroque design styles. Rather than being a prescriptive force for social good, reformers hoped that these physical improvements would “persuade urban dwellers to become more imbued with civic patriotism and better disposed toward community needs.” [4] Canadian urban designers soon imitated American City Beautiful aesthetics.

By the time Neurdein captured his photograph, planners in the city had already formally recognized their commitment to the City Beautiful campaign. In 1906, local officials formed the “Comité des ameliorations municipals” to design parks and boulevards for the region based on the City Beautiful model.[5] Neurdein’s combination of both urban and natural imagery represents a vision of nature that could not only withstand human activity without becoming soiled by it, but also shape and positively influence interactions between people in metropolitan spaces—all elements of the City Beautiful movement. Everyone in his photograph, from the older flaneur-type man with his cane, to the girl pushing a younger sibling in a stroller, has seemingly been drawn to the park by its natural beauty and accessible location. Viger Park turned a busy, capitalist-driven downtown core into a communal space—many human relationships were dependent on this natural setting.

The City Beautiful aesthetic would have been understandable to a French photographer in particular because many of its design components were European. Proponents believed that cities in France and Germany represented the perfect union of practicality and beauty, and they sought to replicate European parks and tree-lined avenues in North America.[6] A viewer from France such as Nuerdein would have approved of the movement’s architectural ideals, as they were influenced by Beaux-Arts design, which paired together Baroque and Neoclassical styles. Although Place Viger was designed in the Chateauesque style, the curved walls which are visible to the viewer are inspired by Baroque design and would have been familiar to a European eye. Perhaps this explains why Neurdein chose to highlight that aspect of the hotel-rail station while leaving the rest cut off by trees. Although the image was captured in Canada, it nonetheless showcased elements of urban planning that were inspired by European cities.

Louis-Antonin Neurdein’s Viger Square is exemplary of early twentieth century conceptions about the interaction between urban and natural environments. Following the City Beautiful trend, Neurdein’s image suggests that aesthetic settings play an important role in industrial centres and can give rise to appropriate social interactions between people. In contrast to conservationists who espoused a wilderness free from human activity, the proponents of the City Beautiful movement believed that culture imbued natural settings with meaning and memory, which in turn had restorative effects on populations. Neurdein’s postcard documents one of many ways that Canadians reacted to increased industrialization in the early twentieth century, suggesting that conceptions of the natural world are rarely static during eras of societal change.

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Girls Gathering Lupins, Train Passing, John H. Boyd photographer, 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 10680.

Girls Gathering Lupins, Train Passing

by M. Blake Butler

This photograph was taken on June 12, 1927 in the hamlet of Lorne Park in what is now Mississauga, Ontario. John H. Boyd, the staff photographer at The Globe, captured the image. At the time of his hiring in 1922, Boyd was the Globe’s “first and only staff photographer… making him one of the first professional photojournalists employed full-time in Canada.”[7]

Girls Gathering Lupins is part of a collection of four images taken by Boyd in Lorne Park on June 12. Although this particular image was not used in the newspaper, another image he took that day, Sybil Chappell & E.A.B, was used two days later in “The Homemaker” section of The Globe. The caption notes that lupines “seem to thrive on the soot and the cinders always found anywhere along the railway right of way in the country,” and that they were “[abundant] along many sections of the track close by the city.” The newspaper highlighted that many folk were out picking lupines that Sunday, June 12.[8]

That begs the question of what drew Boyd to photograph the scene that day. Lorne Park is located thirty kilometres west of Toronto and, at the time, was linked to the city by only the railway and Highway #2 (now Lakeshore Road). His editors presumably believed an image of women picking lupines was of interest to its readers. The editors may have felt that urban women would be interested in learning about the activities of their country counterparts or knowing that lupines could be found in large numbers surrounding the city.

Girls Gathering Lupins raises yet other questions: why were these women picking the flowers? Wild lupines, also known as Lupinus perennis, are poisonous to humans and so were presumably intended entirely for decorative purposes. There could also have been other applications for these flowers, though. As Boyd notes in the June 14 article, women were picking the flower with its root, “these sometimes getting down to a depth of nearly two feet.”[9] This indicates that the flowers were likely intended for transplant into the family’s personal gardens. Lupines are a nitrogen-fixing plant and can also play a role in helping to improve or prolong soil quality.[10] Whether these women were aware of the lupine’s nitrogen-fixing property, it is possible these flowers were being re-planted in gardens to improve soil quality.

Boyd’s image provides important insight into the natural history of Lorne Park. In Girls Gathering Lupins, the flower dominates the fields immediately beside the train tracks. Likewise, the commentary attached to Sybil Chappell & E.A.B points to the flower’s prominence around the city in 1927. But this is no longer the case. Today, Lupinus perennis is considered rare in southern Ontario and is only found wild in Toronto’s High Park and Pinery Provincial Park.[11] Girls Gathering Lupins reminds us how the flower’s range has decreased since 1927.

While this is important information, it does not tell the whole story. As historian of photography Joan M. Schwartz argues, it is important to “ask what those visual facts were intended to convey, what they meant for different viewers at the time the photograph was created or subsequently circulated.”[12] Girls Gathering Lupins conveys two very different, and in many ways conflicting, messages depending on how you look at the image.

To start, the photograph points to the simplicity and beauty of the countryside, a place where women did not have to worry about the realities of an urban, modern existence. In this sense, Boyd’s image evokes an anti-modernist interpretation of Lorne Park, an idea that emphasizes, in Ian McKay’s words, “an intensely individualistic thirst for an existence released from the iron cage of modernity into a world re-enchanted by history, nature, and the mysterious.”[13]

Elements of anti-modernism can be seen in Girls Gathering Lupins. An urban dweller himself, Boyd may have felt this image captured an earlier and simpler time in Ontario’s past. Indeed, Girls Gathering Lupins makes life in the country appear quite appealing; in Lorne Park, women spend their weekends picking flowers and enjoying the outdoors. There is no indication of any challenges associated with living in the country. In that sense, living in the countryside is romanticized and celebrated as a simpler and more peaceful existence, removed from the urban environment.

At the same time, however, elements of modernity are quite prominent in Girls Gathering Lupins. The passing train, the railway tracks, and the electrical lines demonstrate that technological progress had, of course, reached the hamlet by 1927. The train can serve as a metaphor for technological progress and modernity and the women are watching these developments arrive in their community. The train and the railway tracks also serve as a link between the rural hamlet and Toronto. We cannot see the expressions of the women but this again raises the question of how they perceived of these developments. All are watching the train go by and the woman closest to the railway tracks appears to be waving or holding out her flowers to the train. Perhaps they were happy to see the train pass by, a reminder of their connection to Toronto and the outside world. Or perhaps they were actually advertising their bouquets, hoping to sell them to passengers on the train. This suggests a far different, class reading of the image – and if accurate, it is even more telling that the commentary accompanying Boyd’s photograph in the Globe makes no mention of it. In this interpretation, the picturesque is emphasized over possible economic realities. Imagining the women’s responses to the train offers new interpretations about this photograph.

Girls Gathering Lupins seems to showcase a community at a crossroads. On the one hand, Boyd’s photograph points to a simpler existence away from the confines of the city, a place where women could spend their Sunday picking flowers. On the other hand, it showcases the steady advance of modernity into the countryside in 1927. Lorne Park becomes a place that is both foreign and familiar; a community that is both removed from the many vices of the modern urban city and yet still possesses some of its virtues. Viewed through these two lenses, the image takes on very different meanings. As Schwartz reminds us, while “photography fixes an image… it is only the visual content of the photograph that is fixed and stable. The image’s import – the message it is expected to deliver, its meaning… can change dramatically between author/photographer and audience/viewer.”[14]

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Sheep Shall Safely Graze? Vimy Memorial, “Stephengg” photographer, 2014, https://flic.kr/p/rPxu6k. Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Creative Commons license.

The Sheep of Vimy

by Haley Kalous

In April 1917, the Canadian Corps stormed Vimy Ridge in the French countryside and claimed a momentous victory over the German Army. Five years later, the French government granted permission for a memorial of the battle to be built at Hill 145; it took another fourteen years to complete. The greatest challenge facing the project was not its scale, but the delicate restructuring of the land surrounding the hill. The Battle for Vimy Ridge had resulted in the utter destruction of the area, much of which was a result of extensive shelling and the strategic burial of mines. In the process of erecting the monument, architect Walter Allward spent the early years removing unexploded mines, shells and bodies from the surrounding area of the memorial in order to begin building.[15] Today, the memorial at Vimy Ridge stands as a man-made testament to the cost of the war, in stark contrast to the fresh growth and lush forests that encompass the natural area.

The sheep at Vimy Ridge have come to be known as the groundskeepers of the memorial, grazing in the fields and forests maintaining the landscape. As a result, they have become as iconic as the monument itself and are featured in many photographs taken by visitors of the memorial. Curators of the memorial have begun utilizing the sheep being allowed onto the grass to signify the beginning of spring in the same way that North Americans look to the groundhog to determine the season. Livestock are known to be a crucial part of the French countryside, and their presence at a war memorial reminds visitors that the land is not only the site of a catastrophic battle, but it is also a natural landscape that was once unspoiled by war. The area surrounding the memorial has been extensively swept for unexploded mines and redesigned with the safety of visitors in mind. Outside of the designated areas there is signage, such as the one in the photograph that indicates the danger of straying from the paths. Certain areas surrounding the memorial are fenced off due to the enduring threat of unexploded shells, and have become the primary grazing area of the Vimy sheep. The sheep serve the primary purpose of maintaining the grass because they are the safest option for trimming those particular areas of the memorial site.  They are well-suited to the job because they are light of foot, which means both that they will not disturb the dormant explosives underground, and that they will not churn up the sod and defile the landscape. What’s more, in doing their work they are impeding ecological succession – preventing shrubs and trees from overtaking the area. As such, the sheep are not only preserving the memorial, they are helping to create and “reenact” it.

Tourists have taken photographs such as the one above countless times. At first glance, the photo taken by “Stephengg” in 2014 and posted to the photography-sharing website Flickr appears to be just a wholesome photograph of sheep grazing in a green wooded area. The lushness of the grass and trees indicates fertile land, perhaps wholly unburdened by human contact and being used as a natural area for animals. But then the bright red “Danger” sign alerts the viewer to the presence of unexploded shells in the ground. Suddenly, the sheep, which initially added a calming presence to the scene, are seen as having a specific role. They are the groundskeepers which trim the grass because it is not safe for humans to do so. Such photographs are all about juxtaposition. They require the viewer to look, and look again, because the image’s two elements – sheep and sign – have their fullest meaning only in relation to one another. A photo of just the sheep, or just the sign, would not have nearly the same impact. The intention of the photograph is to remind the viewer of the danger that still lies beneath Vimy. People and nature have changed Vimy since 1917, but the residue of the past still lingers.

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[1] Alan MacEachern, syllabus for History 9833B—Environmental History: People and Nature through Time, Western University, Winter 2018.

[2] Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention,” Harvard Magazine, November-December 2013, 40-43 (quotation on 40).

[3] Marie-Ève Bouillon, “The Market of Tourism Images: Mont Saint-Michel at the End of the Nineteenth Century,” Études Photographiques 30 (2012).

[4] William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), 1.

[5] Isabelle Caron, “Les Cartes Postales De Montréal, 1897-1945: L’Influence du Project de Ville Sur le Paysage Construit,” PhD dissertation, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2010.

[6] Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement, 85.

[7] Kevin Plummer, “Historicist: The Two John Boyds,” Torontoist, December 17, 2011.

[8] “An Armful of Loveliness!” The Globe, June 14, 1927.

[9] Ibid.

[10]Native Plant Database – Lupinus perennis,” Evergreen.ca.

[11] Lupines are generally found in ecosystems with disturbed or sandy soils with a thin tree canopy, such as oak savannahs. Periodic fires often make these ecosystems suitable for wild lupines. Robert C. Corry notes that the flower does not withstand crowding, or persist long against post-fire competition and succession. Changes in fire management, as well as habitat fragmentation, agricultural land clearing, and human construction have contributed to the decline of this flower in Southwestern Ontario. While Girls Gathering Lupins shows the area beside the tracks to consist of open meadows, today these areas have been replaced with housing developments and many trees have re-grown or been re-planted in these areas. Robert C. Corry, “Using Landscape Context to Guide Ecological Restoration: An Approach to Pits and Quarries in Ontario,” Ecological Restoration 26 no. 2 (2008) 124; Karner Blue Butterfly Recovery Team, Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) Recovery Plan (Fort Snelling, Minnesota: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2003), 31.

[12] Joan M. Schwartz, “Photographic Reflections: Nature, Landscape, and Environment,” Environmental History 12 (2007), 777.

[13] Ian McKay, The Quest for the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), xv.

[14] Schwartz, 772.

[15] Brian Bethune, “Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917: ‘Like a scene out of Dante’,” Macleans magazine, April 9, 2015.

 

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M. Blake Butler, Haley Kalous, Maggie O’Riordan Ross, & Finis Dunaway

Maggie O’Riordan Ross is a Master’s candidate in History at the University of Western Ontario, writing on prostitution in 20th century London, Ontario. M. Blake Butler is a first year Ph.D. student at the University of Western Ontario, researching the history of cetacean conservation in Canada; he grew up in Lorne Park. Haley Kalous is a Master’s candidate in History at the University of Western Ontario, writing on battlefield tourism in the 1920s and 1930s. Finis Dunaway is Professor of History at Trent University and the Gallery and Film Forum Editor for Environmental History. He is the author, most recently, of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images and is currently writing a book about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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