Encountering Environmental Imagery from the Present and the Past

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Stone's Studio photographs: P342-14159A-1

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Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at http://markjmclaughlin.com.

A few Christmases ago, my partner’s parents gave us a promotional magnet for the city of Fredericton, New Brunswick, pictured here on our fridge, as a gag gift:


At first glance, the magnet doesn’t really fit with most people’s mental picture of New Brunswick’s capital city. Besides the fact that the text “Canadian Rock ‘n Roll” is rather odd and ambiguous, the image of the kayaker going over the rapids just seems out of place. Indeed, the body of water that flows through the city is the St. John River, and it looks like this:


This is a panoramic shot I took one evening last summer looking from a friend’s condominium on the north side of the river at downtown Fredericton on the south side. At this point in its course, the river is close to a kilometre in width, and except for a few weeks during the spring freshet, its flow remains fairly calm throughout the year. As you can see, there is nowhere to take an action shot like the one on the magnet.

However, I consulted with a friend of mine who does a lot of recreational kayaking around New Brunswick, and it turns out there are a number of rivers and larger creeks within a half-an-hour drive of Fredericton that have rapids like the ones shown on the magnet. It is thus very likely that the image of the kayaker is an actual photograph taken in the general vicinity of the capital region, and not, as I first believed, the result of some unsuspecting individual filling out an order for promotional magnets with a stock photo.

Consequently, the magnet serves as a good reminder of how, as scholars, we need to remain prudent and critically-minded when encountering environmental imagery. While images can be sometimes tricky to interpret, they can also be incredibly powerful analytical tools if we use them wisely. And for the non-scholars out there, images like photographs are referred to as visual culture, and the process of interpreting images is called visual culture analysis.

Now I’m far from an expert on such matters, but here are a few basic questions that I’ve found beneficial to keep in mind when conducting an analysis of visual culture: am I reading too little or too much into a particular image? What was the creator’s intention behind it? Is it an accurate representation or misleading, either deliberately or unwittingly? What can be learned from the image in general or from specific parts of it? Does it tell me anything about the time and place in which it was created or about the person/people who created it?

Take, for example, this photograph of Stearman biplanes spraying DDT over New Brunswick’s forests in the 1950s:

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Stone's Studio photographs: P342-14159A-1
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Stone’s Studio photographs: P342-14159A-1

First off, some might recognize the image from the front cover of the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of the journal Acadiensis featuring my article on New Brunswick’s spruce budworm spraying program.

Outside of my shameless self-promotion, there is the serious intent behind the creation of this photograph. The spruce budworm spraying program was mired in controversy in the 1950s. Conservationists accused the program of, among other things, being haphazardly planned, leading to blanket spraying with little regard for more sensitive areas like waterways. Officials with the public-private company that did the spraying, Forest Protection Limited, wanted to counter any notion that the program was conducted carelessly, so they commissioned a series of photographs to demonstrate that spraying was undertaken in an orderly and controlled manner. Like the one above, many of the photographs were taken from the spotter plane, and depict the spraying operation underway in the typical two-plane formation. The even-aged forests in the background, the outcome of past harvesting, add to the implicit sense of human control over nature.

My goal as an environmental historian is to understand the intent behind the photograph and to even move analytically beyond it. Through an examination of the historical record, I worked out that the photograph was in effect a form of corporate propaganda, designed to make the spraying program appear more benign than it actually was. But the image represents so much more than that: scientific and technological hubris, human desperation to keep nature in check, the real fear of what would happen if the budworm wasn’t controlled through the spray option, the concerns of conservationists and environmentalists over the damage being done to ecosystems, the dead and dying fish and birds among the even-aged forests. I’ve used this image quite a bit when lecturing and giving presentations, and believe me, it usually resonates with people on many levels.

Whether encountering environmental imagery from the present or the past, there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all approach. The best we can do as scholars is proceed cautiously, ask lots of critical questions, and be open to all sorts of possible answers, yet the rewards can be great. Fortunately, there’s a magnet on the fridge at home to remind me of all of this on a daily basis.

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I am an Assistant Professor of History and Canadian Studies, a cross-appointment with the Department of History and the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine in Orono. I have research interests in the history of forestry, resource management and science, modern environmentalism, and government comics in Canada.

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