Natural Visions: Photography and ecological knowledge 1895-1939




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De Montfort University


Thesis or dissertation

Peer reviewed


This thesis is about ecology as visual science, and the role of photography in establishing and promoting ecology in Britain, as a new kind of knowledge and as a new scientific discipline, between around 1895 and 1939. In the historiography of early ecological science, the roles of photography and visual knowledge have remained largely unnoticed. Yet, from its beginnings in 19th century European phytogeography, to the first modern ecological vegetation surveys undertaken by British ecologists around 1900, ecology developed as a visual science. From the late 1890s, early ecologists insisted on a role for photography in particular, as a means of scientific investigation and representation.

The thesis explores the development of British ecology as a photographically visualised science, as ecologists promoted new surveys and photographic collections, establishing new institutions and new publications to promote their science. Photography became a ubiquitous field method, for recording and authenticating the complex objects and processes of ecology, and for promoting a broader ecological community of knowledge and practice.

Ecologists met on common ground with other natural scientists ‘in the field’, and this ground is illuminated by a consideration of wider visual, material and social practices. In particular, parallel practices of collecting and exchange — of natural objects and photographs — demonstrated a continuity between ecologists and other natural scientists, whilst also supporting the conceptual transformation instigated by ecological thought, and facilitating a new community of interest amongst ecological professionals. Through ethnographic and accounts of the field practices of ecology and related natural history studies, the thesis extends the study of visual and material culture in science and places photography and ecology within a broader economy of knowledge and material culture.

Drawing on archive sources from the British Ecological Society, Kew, Cambridge University, the Natural History Museum and elsewhere, as well as a wide range of primary published materials (especially early ecological journals), the thesis opens a new area in the study of photographic practice in the history of science. It demonstrates the value of archive-led photographic history, especially from less conventional photographic archival sources, as a tool for the mutual illumination of photographic history and the history of science.





Research Institute