The images in the American Environmental Photographs Collection were created by faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Botany at the University of Chicago from the 1890s to the 1930s. Among the most active photographers contributing to the collection were Henry C. Cowles, George D. Fuller, George E. Nichols, Charles J. Chamberlain, Ira B. Meyer, Paul J. Sedgwick, William J. Cribbs, and Ezra J. Kraus.
The earliest photographs in the collection were taken in 1891 in the arid desert landscapes of California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. The latest images were made in the Hawaiian Islands in 1936. Photographs in the collection were made in a variety of sizes and formats and preserved by the Department of Botany as glass plate negatives, mounted prints, and glass lantern slides.
Cameras accompanied Department of Botany faculty and students on field trips across the United States: to the lakeshore dunes of Indiana and Michigan, the rocky escarpments of Wisconsin, and the rugged mountain ranges of Alaska, New Mexico, and Utah. Photographs also recorded unplowed prairies, virgin forests, swamps and marshes, ocean coasts, glacial debris, and the use of natural resources for industries as widely varied as citrus fruit growing and turpentine manufacture.
The Department of Botany photographs supported a range of interrelated academic activities, all closely tied to the research, publication, and teaching missions of the University of Chicago. Photographs provided vivid and persuasive documentation of the form, variation, distribution, and ecological setting of individual plants and plant communities. Botanists carrying cameras into the field, onto beaches and dunes, into canyons, and across prairies and mountain meadows could record vegetation in its full environmental context. Far more effectively than was possible by collecting isolated plant specimens for later laboratory study, field photography allowed the imaginative ecological botanist to portray the complicated and constantly changing relationships between plants and among competing species of plant life.
Whether the photographs were sweeping views of the landscape at its broadest extent or tight-focus closeups of an individual flower stem or tree leaf, the botanist's images were an essential element in the collection and analysis of original ecological data. Reproduced as printed illustrations in journal articles or scientific monographs, field photographs helped the botanist to make a persuasive scientific argument. Photographs could be interpreted to show that plant species flourished in specific ecological settings, and that plant communities, through the process of succession, responded to the character and pace of change in the surrounding environment.
Photographs also played an important role in conveying botanical information and ecological theories to students and members of the general public. Particularly when projected as lantern slides, images of plants and natural environments helped to increase student interest in the field of botany, expose audiences to novel plants and unfamiliar landscapes, and add visual emphasis to the lecturer's points. In the Department of Botany, images on slides were produced from field trips over more than four decades, and they were reused repeatedly by successive generations of faculty members and students investigating the biological world of plants and their ecologies.
With the passage of years, the images in the collection have taken on new value as historical records of the American landscape at a crucial juncture in its exploration and development. The photographs document the plant forms and ecological communities that were the focus of research for Cowles and his colleagues. More than a century after the earliest photographs were made, these images also serve as benchmarks for charting the decline of native plants or the invasion of alien species, the survival of old-growth forests, the erosion of shorelines, gradual transformations in the height and contours of dunes, or the rejuvenation of vegetation after devastating fires.
The botanists' cameras captured powerful and sometimes quite beautiful images of trees, flowers, grasses, succulents, and other forms of plant life. But they also recorded the cultural impact of human settlement, both ancient and modern. Photographs depicted the pueblos, lodges, totem poles, and social customs of American Indian communities that had preserved their identity into the early decades of the twentieth century. Cameras also documented many aspects of rural and small-town life of the time: frame churches and stores, muddy roads and flooded river fords, shady camps and resorts, crowded railroad platforms, steaming sawmills, the new research stations of growing state universities, and bleak stretches of open land with isolated farms and ranches offering the only signs of settlement.
The source materials for this collection are housed in the Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library. (external link) Inquiries about the original images, including requests for reproduction, should be directed to the Reader Services Librarian. (external link)
The digitization and presentation of these materials by the University of Chicago Library was supported by an award from the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition.