Michaelmas Week 4: “Hidden in plain sight: early ecology as a visual science”

Summary of the talk that Damian Hughes (De Montfort University, Photographic History Research Centre, damian.hughes@dmu.ac.uk) gave on 25th July 2013

In this paper, Damian discussed photographic practices in the emergence of scientific ecology at the beginning of the 20th century.

The visual history of ecology’s emergence from 19th century biology has received almost no attention. Damian’s paper examined this transition, not solely in terms of the epistemic change implicit in the arrival of a new discipline, but also as a continuity of visual experience in understanding the natural world.

The paper drew attention to a dramatic surge of photographic illustration in botanical journals at the close of the nineteenth century, coinciding precisely with the advent of published ecological studies. The visual register of ecological fieldwork was explored, with particular reference to early British ecologists Frank Oliver and Arthur Tansley, both then at University College, London.

Visual assessment was at the centre of scientific observation for vegetation survey in these and other field studies and provided the basis for instructing others in the observational skills required to see the ecological object of vegetation.

Bouch d'Erquy

Part of the Bouche d’Erquy, showing a gridiron survey under way in 1904. (From Oliver and Tansley 1904)

Damian’s inquiry was extended to demonstrate a similar visual and photographic component in the work of American ecologist Frederic Clements who, in 1905, published the first manual of Research Methods in Ecology, in which he insisted on the importance of the camera as an instrument for ecological research.

Quadrat study chart

A typical chart quadrat. (Clements, 1905. Research Methods in Ecology, 168-69)

These visual strategies in early plant ecology indicate a continuity of sensory experience with 19th century traditions in natural history and botanical science, but also a significant rupture in the conceptual framework upon which those traditions were founded.

Where the photography of academic botanists and collectors singled out individual species as objects of special interest, ecologist-photographers were concerned with the complex relational structure of the vegetation; not a species but a complex association of biological and physical objects, regarded as a unity – an ecological object.

Azorella columnaris

Arthur Hill. Azorella columnaris, 1903. Sir Arthur Hill Papers, Kew/AWH/4/1.
Photograph Album of a Journey in Chile, Bolivia and Peru. (Silver-gelatin print)

Taxus wood

A. Burges. Taxus wood at Muckross, Killarney, 1911. Tansley Photographic Collection, British Ecological Society. BUR/1 (Silver gelatin print)

Finally, Damian outlined a provisional ‘typology’ for ecological photographs between about 1895 and 1920, suggesting a number of categories of photographic practice, including descriptive, analytical, disciplinary and social.

He emphasised especially the specificity of place and the demonstration of scientific work in ecological photographs, in part intended to validate ecology as science for sceptical botanical profession, but also as a means of arriving at a shared understanding of the ecological object. Together with social photographs, taken on shared field expeditions, such photographs also served to bolster a sense of professional and disciplinary unity.

International Phytogeographic Excursion

Elizabeth Cowles. International Phytogeographic Excursin, 1911. Tansley Photographic Collection, British Ecological Society. COW/7 (Silver gelatin print)

Ecology presented a new conceptual framework for biological science, but it did so in response to the same kinds of visual experience as 18th century Linnaeans and 19th century naturalists, and deployed a range of visual arguments as evidence in support of this new framework. The ‘revolution’ of scientific ecology was its understanding of the natural world as consisting of complex objects and processes, engaged in dynamic generative relationships. Ecologists pursued this conception, and sought to convince others, in part, by teaching themselves and others how to see the ecological in the natural world.

Blakeney Point

Frank Oliver. Blakeney Point, 1910 & 1914.Tansley Photographic Collection, British Ecological Society. OLI/9-10 (Silver gelatin prints)


Clements, F. E. (1905) Research Methods in Ecology, Lincoln, Nebraska, University Publishing Co.

Oliver, F. W. & Tansley, A. G. (1904) Methods of Surveying Vegetation on a Large Scale. New Phytologist, 3, 228-237.


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