Photographing Environmental History

Scroll this

By Kenneth Reilly, Michael Feagan and Matthew Cleary. Introduction by Jamie Murton


In backcountry British Columbia around the turn of the century, men did their own laundry. That much at least is suggested by the above image, which Library and Archives Canada gives the curious, two part description “Girl Wanted — Man doing washing.”1 “Girl Wanted, Atlin, B.C.,” was photographer C.R. Bourne’s title for the postcards he marketed bearing this image, and knowing that, we can say a little more. Bourne, as Patricia Roy and John Herd Thompson point out, clearly thought that “a man doing ‘woman’s work’” was funny, and this “suggests the tenacity of notions about what constituted ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ work.”2 It also both constructed and played upon a popular understanding of rural B.C. as overwhelmingly inhabited by single men, an idea that was true but, as Adele Perry has argued, also hid the deep, personal relationships these men formed with Indigenous women and with each other.

Analyzing what is in the image and how it was used in the past, then, shows how this photograph did work in the past, constructing and reinforcing understandings as surely as any text. Yet historians often still use photographs as illustrations of people and places discussed in their writing. We might notice, for instance, the enormous amount of wood in this image, and the fact that Bourne’s title suggests it was not the most remarkable thing in it at the time. In other words environmental historians in particular, given our concerns with the material and the construction of human and natural landscapes, are missing out by not taking photographs more seriously.

The three short essays presented here take up the challenge. These essays are the product of an assignment given by Alan MacEachern to his graduate students at Western University: to comment on an image as a piece of primary evidence in environmental history. The resulting works, by Kenneth Reilly, Michael Feagan, and Matthew Cleary, each interrogate one image, placing it into the context of its creation and suggesting how the combination of what the image shows and how it was and is used says about a range of fascinating topics: the role of senses other than sight in interacting with the natural world; how the new technology of electrical transmission wires reshaped the experience of natural disaster; and the way in which the Persian garden of Bagh-e-Shazdeh plays with the boundary between the natural and the human. These are splendid examples of how photographs can be used in environmental history to enrich our understanding of people’s relationships to built and natural environments.  

[1] “Girl Wanted – Man Doing Washing,” 1909, C.R. Bourne, photographer. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3336140. Public Domain.
[2] Patricia E. Roy and John Herd Thompson, British Columbia: Land of Promises (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2005), 79; Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).
From “Blind Youths ‘See’ Nature Trail,” by Nan Robertson, New York Times, July 16, 1968. Reproduced by permission of the New York Times.

The Wonder of their Senses

By Kenneth Reilly

Three teenagers surround a large white oak tree at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. John Wilkinson, in the middle, embraces the tree while Michael Turner, on the left, slides his hand across its surface. Anna Filipi stands and smiles to the right. Her right hand touches the tree’s bark as she reads a braille sign with the other. All three teenagers have been blind since birth.

Taken by Nan Robertson, this photograph shows the opening of a “Touch and See” nature trail for the blind. A federal project developed in consultation with the advocacy group Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, the opening attracted significant attention. Photographers took many pictures of this trail. Unlike other parks that promoted sight, however, this trail encouraged visitors to appreciate the “wonder of their senses” and notice the tastes, textures, odors, and sounds of nature.1

Although the area is described as being kept in a “natural state,” there are signs of development. Ropes on the trail guide the blind down routes deemed appropriate, while pathways are cleared. Other botanical features were added for visitors to interact with. Braille posts also contained botanical, cautionary, and philosophical messages. Visitors, however, could disagree. Turner felt that the Weeping Willow marsh did not earn its name, while Filipi complained about reading a post on photosynthesis because “we drilled on about photosynthesis in the ninth grade!”2

Wonder is also prominent in this photo. Filipi smiles as she touches the tree and reads the braille post while Wilkinson embraces the tree. Their blindness does not stop them from “seeing” this space. The youth of these teenagers is also important. After all, childhood “innocence” has often been used to convey the wonders of a “pristine” wilderness. Their innocence is further accentuated by their blindness since people with disabilities have often been portrayed as vulnerable.

Because this trail emphasized the other senses, Wilkinson’s embrace of the white oak tree is not only an act of wonder but a way to learn about the tree’s size and age. Learning, then, becomes a corporeal experience. Forced to use their bodies, the photo suggests that they have formed a deeper relationship with the park. Robertson, then, encourages the viewer to consider how the body is used when learning about the environment.  

Ironically, this photograph is of people without sight, but perhaps Robertson’s message is that while nature is seen, it is also heard, smelled, felt, and tasted. A camera cannot capture these latter senses, forcing viewers to imagine what they cannot see. They may also ask how “disabled” these teenagers are, whether their blindness hinders them, or do the designs of parks disable them? Having a disability affects not only how one interacts with their environment, but how others perceive their place in that space. By stressing sight, Robertson shows that these teenagers learn as much as any sighted individual.

Just as other photos of the environment have helped “contest the social meanings of water, rocks, and animals” this photo contests the social meaning of sight.3 Robertson not only captures alternative access to the environment, but the limits of relying on images of the environment. Photography expresses a visual engagement with the physical world. Use of this technology has resulted in nature being constructed primarily as something seen, consequently, omitting those without sight from these narratives. This photo challenges that construction, revealing that assumptions about able-bodied interactions with nature reflect only one way to interact with the environment. Knowledge of the environment is connected to how the body is used. Much like how disabilities encourage novel ways to view the body and its functions, this photo encourages consideration of alternative access to the environment. In The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture, Sarah Jaquette Ray argues that narratives of the environment in American culture have excluded people with disabilities from wilderness.4 These stories are filled with the exploits of able bodied people. As a result, nature is believed to be no space for those with disabilities. Photos like this one, though, show that people with disabilities have interacted with the environment, engendering further discussions surrounding accessibility in National Parks. It also allows environmental historians to consider new narratives surrounding disability, the body, and the environment.

[1] Nan Robertson, “Blind Youths ‘See’ New Nature Trail,” New York Times, July 16, 1968.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joan M. Schwartz, “On Photographic Representations: Nature, Landscape, and Environment,” Environmental History, 12 (October 2007), 968.
[4] Sarah Jaquette Ray, The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture, (Phoenix: University of Arizona Press, 2013): 41.
“Streets in New York City as the storm hit. Many overhead wires broke and presented a hazard to city dwellers,” 1888. Photograph collection of The Museum of the City of New York. Public Domain.

The Blizzard of 1888

By Michael Feagan

The Blizzard of 1888, which paralyzed New York City, was one of the most destructive snowstorms in American history. It lasted from March 11 to 14, dropped twenty-one inches of snow, and killed an estimated 200 New Yorkers.1 This photograph of a snow-blocked area near Wall Street, credited to The Brown Brothers, illustrates not only the immense snowfall, but also the omnipresence in that age of telephone poles and wires.2 The tremendous number of wires and poles in the city street captures our attention as much or more than the snow does. The clinging snow highlights them, although this photo does not show the downing of the poles or wires, it emphasizes the danger of them collapsing on the people below. This photo demonstrates the clutter and ugliness of poles and wires in late nineteenth-century American streets and how they posed a threat to the city’s residents.

Throughout the 1880s, citizens of New York City – like those of other North American cities ­– complained about the presence of poles and wires. For example, The New York Sun in 1883 reported that New Yorkers thought telegraph poles and wires were “unsightly and dangerous obstructions” and an “infliction” to be endured.3 There had been a long standing conflict between the city of New York and telegraph and telephone companies. In 1884, the state legislature hoped it resolved a longstanding conflict between municipalities and telephone and telegraph companies when it passed the Daly Act, requiring all telephone, telegraph, and electric lighting companies in cities of over 500,000 inhabitants to place wires and cables underground.4 Telephone and telegraph companies denied that their poles and wires were problems – they were set back from buildings and taller than most of them – they hurried to erect more before the act went into effect in November 1884.5 Burying the wires was a slow and uneven process as companies argued there was no practical system for underground telecommunications.6 By 1887, the telegraph company Western Union was beginning to draw its wires underground and had removed about 100 poles from New York City.7 In March, 1888, there were still many poles and wires left. But the blizzard convinced the city, telecom companies, and the public that there could be no further delay. As the March 13, 1888 New York Times stated, “The blizzard may accomplish what months, if not years, of argument and agitation might have failed to do.”8

The blizzard snapped poles and downed wires, wrecking New York’s communication networks, rendering the city isolated from the outside world. Businesses stopped operating, mail could not be sent or received, and, thanks to downed telegraph lines, trains could not enter the city – which in turn threatened the food supply.9 Pedestrians risked electrocution from downed lines. For linemen working on snow- and ice-covered roofs and poles, repairing the infrastructure was also a dangerous business.10 With the wires of the city’s fire alarm system down, there was a serious threat of conflagration.11 The New York Times remarked, “The most amazing thing to the residents of this great city must be the ease with which the elements were able to overcome the boasted triumph of civilization, particularly… our superior means of intercommunication.”12 The blizzard of 1888 illustrated the need to improve upon the city’s communication networks so that forces of nature could not overcome them again. That meant tearing down poles and burying the wires. It was nature, not humans, which ultimately got companies and the city of New York to change.

As evocative as this photo is, it did not make it into the New York Times, or any press coverage of the blizzard, because the technology of reproducing photographs in newspapers would not become widespread until 1897.13 However, thanks to digital archiving it has seen an even greater potential audience than it would have historically. The New York Times now uses this image regularly to illustrate the devastating effects of blizzards on the city and its networks.14 In online articles, this image emphasizes what has changed in New York to make blizzards less deadly and destructive, often reinforcing narratives of progress over nature. But according to Mitch Keller of the Times, it is also presented as a warning: that with climate change causing more regular and intense storms, the blizzard of 1888 might not be the worst New York experiences.15

[1] Eric Moskowitz, “Think Snowstorms Are Rough Now? Check Out These Vintage New York Blizzards,” New York Times, January 18, 2019,
[2] Moskowitz.
[3] The Globe, “The Telegraph Pole Nuisance,” March, 20 1883.
[4] New York Times, “First Suit Under the Daly Act,” July 31, 1884.
[5] “First Suit Under the Daly Act,” and; New York Times, “The Pole and The Wire Nuisance,” July 12, 1884.
[6] “First Suit Under the Daly Act.”
[7] New York Times, “The Poles to Come Down,” January 15, 1887.
[8] New York Times, “In a Blizzard’s Grasp,” March 13, 1888.
[9] Moskowitz.
[10] New York Times, “Throwing off its Burden,” March 15, 1888.
[11] “In a Blizzard’s Grasp.”
[12] “In a Blizzard’s Grasp.”
[13] Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839–1889 (New York: Dover Publications, 1964), 446.
[14] Moskowitz; Mitch Keller, “Long-Ago Snow,” New York Times, December 31, 2006,
[15] Keller.
Images from Leila Mahmoudi Farahani, Bahareh Motamed, and Elmira Jamei, “Persian Gardens: Meanings, 
Symbolism, and Design,” Landscape Online 46 (2016): 5, 13, available at under the Creative Commons Attribution License (

The Humanistic Elements of the Bagh-e-Shazdeh: Man’s Attempts to Control Nature

By Matthew Cleary

This image is a set of three photos of the Bagh-e-Shazdeh, meaning Prince Mahan’s Garden that was built circa 1850 C.E.1 This is a rectangular-shaped Persian garden located near Mahan in the Kerman province, Iran.2 The garden is ornamented with water fountains that are made possible by the natural incline of the land aided with irrigation networks. The English word ‘paradise’ is derived from the Old Persian word pairidaeza and it refers to a walled garden.3 Persian kings developed these gardens as a representation of a desert oasis and the Garden of Eden.4 From left, the first image is of the main building looking outward into the garden, the second image is a diagram of the physical layout of the paradise, and the third image is an aerial view of the paradise and its surrounding location. Man’s influence over nature is the dominant focus of these images.

These series of photos represent an unusual depiction of the Bagh-e-Shazdeh garden. Typically, images focus on the ‘natural’ elements, specifically the lush green plants and flowing pools. These images were commissioned by The Office of Cultural Heritage of Iran (I.C.H.T.O.) to provide a pictorial representation of human achievements through the lens of nature.5 This set of images was taken by Azadeh Bitaraf and placed together to view human ingenuity, as a representation of how the Iranian people were able to cultivate and control their environments.6 Instead of focusing on natural beauty, they represent the unnatural element of Bagh-e-Shazdeh, by focusing on a garden to see human influences.

Image one presents two elements: a limited presentation of the beauty of the lush gardens with pools and the unnaturalness of the garden. By presenting the large trees, pool, open sky, corridors for people to walk among the trees and pools, set against the foreground of stairs, concrete columns, and brick cobblestone, it outlines the beauty of the garden as integrated with the physical design. This creates an artificial dichotomy between the interior (building) and exterior (the garden). The image presents the trees and pools as natural and not a part of man’s control, while the building is explicitly designed and built by humans. The colours in the images present the building elements as grey/light brown while the trees are full and green, as well as the pool and sky are blue. This image uses colour to focus the viewer on the ‘natural’ elements with their variety in bright colours, as opposed to the bland coloured building features, to present human achievements as a foundational element in this ecosystem.

The second image presents the designed nature of the garden, but also the physical architecture of the buildings, which demonstrates the human desire for symmetry and beauty in an unnatural environment.7 The floorplan uses colour to present the inherent beauty of the garden, through the use of green and blue, while noting the visible human elements in light brown. This is an effort to focus on the human ability to rigidly control the environment, but also to remove their influence by not making the footpaths a focal point. The are conflicting desires, to present the abilities to cultivate the land and grow plants in precise locations while attempting to balance the intrusiveness of humans onto this created environment. The floor plan outlines the dichotomy between where nature is naturally meant to exist in contrast with societal desires for a confined environment under their control.

Image three outlines the influence of humankind’s attempts to control nature, and the very location of this paradise is set against the desert and mountains of the Kerman province. This image demonstrates the human influence in nature and the foreign geographical elements of the Bagh-e-Shazdeh. The photo uses colour to focus the viewer on the paradise, with its lush green features among a barren desert of reddish yellow colour. This visual technique is used to focus the viewer’s attention to the paradise, rather than focusing on the desert or mountainous surroundings. The aerial photo also presents the limitations of this symmetry, by showing the inability to change the greater landscape. This limitation in their larger ability to create symmetry is compensated with the design of the interior, with its symmetric use of space and vegetation.8

These images provide a vantage point to understanding the Bagh-e-Shazdeh’s physical design and location, as well as the human influences upon it. The images point out the unnaturalness of this paradise, particularly the aerial image where the desire to cultivate an unnatural oasis with their need for symmetry is starkly presented. The images outline both the human ‘achievements’ and limitations in creating this paradise. The images focus on the humanistic elements of the garden, from its unnatural location to the control exerted over where its water runs and its plants grow.

[1] Bagh-e-Shazdeh is also known as Shazdeh Mahan.
[2] Leila Mahmoudi Farahani, Bahareh Motamed, and Elmira Jamei, “Persian Gardens: Meanings, Symbolism, and Design,” Landscape Online 46 (2016): 13. For reference, the Kerman province is in lower central/southern Iran.
[3] Elizabeth A. Moynihan, Paradise as a Garden: In Persia and Mughal India (London: Scolar Press London, 1979), 1.
[4] While an oasis is a naturally occurring phenomenon, a paradise is man-made.
[5] ICHTO (H.a.T.O. 2010), The Persian Garden UNESCO: World Heritage,
[6] Maureen Carroll, Earthly Paradises: Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology (London: British Museum Press, 2003), 127.
[7] According to Farahani et al., in “Persian Gardens: Meanings, Symbolism, and Design,” 10, symmetry is a classical aesthetic tool that has been an inseparable design principle in Persian gardens.
[8] Farahani et al., “Persian Gardens: Meanings, Symbolism, and Design,” 10.

Kenneth Reilly is a Master’s candidate at the University of Western Ontario, writing on the spread of kudzu up north. Michael Feagan is a Master’s student in History at the University of Western Ontario, researching telegraph operators in nineteenth-century Canada. Matthew Cleary is a Master’s candidate in history at the University of Western Ontario studying early modern English sanctuary law; he will commence a PhD in law at the University of Edinburgh in September.


NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.