Competing constructions of nature in early photographs of vegetation : negotiation, dissonance, subversion
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While the role of photography in enforcing hegemonic ideologies has been amply studied, this thesis addresses the under-researched topic of how photography undermined dominant narratives in specific historical circumstances. I argue that, in the later part of the long nineteenth century, photographs were used to represent the natural world in contexts where their functions were uncertain and their capacities not clearly defined, and that these hesitations allowed for the expression of resistances to dominant social attitudes towards nature. I analyse how these divergences were articulated through three independent case studies, each addressing a corpus of photographs which has been marginalised in scholarly discourse. The case studies all concern photographs of vegetation. The first one discusses photographs produced around Fontainebleau during the Second French Empire, commonly understood as auxiliary materials for Barbizon painters, and argues that they were in fact autonomous representations, reflecting marginal modes of experiencing nature which resisted its prevailing construction as spectacle. The second case study examines a photographic series depicting Amazonian vegetation, published between 1900 and 1906, and shows how, in attempting to satisfy conflicting ideological demands, these photographs undermined the hierarchies enforced upon the natural world by colonial science. The third case study analyses photographs from an early twentieth-century environmentalist treatise, and demonstrates how, while the author's discourse seemingly complied with conventional attitudes towards nature, the photographs instituted an ethical stance opposed to early conservation's aesthetic focus and anthropocentrism. Throughout the case studies, I argue that the photographs were consubstantial to the emergence of these resistances; that dissenting representations stemmed from a tension between their producers' lived experience and the ideological frameworks which informed each context; and that this process engendered remarkable formal innovations, which are not usually associated to non-artistic images. I contend that radical renewals of visual expression occur in all representational contexts, as image producers adapt their tools or forge new ones according to circumstances, and that more attention must be paid to such visual innovations outside the field of artistic production.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2023-01-15
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Print copy restricted until 15th January 2020. Electronic copy restricted until 15th January 2023
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