Environmental Photography

Environmental photography, taken to mean any photographic practice concerned with the relationships between humans and the environment (non-humans), must necessarily be a disruptive and deep thinking practice if it is to take seriously its aims – the slowing and eventual reversal of the damage that humans (in sum) are inflicting upon the planet.

A 25-turbine wind farm located about eight kilometers off the northern Welsh coast in the Irish Sea.
© Alex McClean

The growing understanding of concepts like climate change and the anthropocene (and their implications), beyond their disciplines of origin into more general public consciousness will hopefully generate increasingly thoughtful responses from within photography.

Though as current photographic practices are wide and varied, encompassing: fine art, documentary, photojournalism, scientific, vernacular, curation and criticism. What it means to be disruptive and environmentally thoughtful within these boundaries is still unclear.

The adage that the thinking that got us into this mess is not the same thinking that that is going to get us out of it, is hackneyed but still worth keeping close. Particularly if you’re interested in deep change, which I think anyone drawn to environmental photography probably is.

In 1978’s Dismantling Modernism, Allan Sekula stressed the need for artists working in political practice to educate themselves out of professional elitism and narrowness of concern and asked how could art be produced that elicited critical dialogue rather than uncritical pseudo-political affirmation?

Alex McClean’s Energy Landscapes is a series of aerial photographs showing what a low carbon footprint actually looks like. The photographs are first interesting and generous for what they don’t do.

They don’t make you feel guilty for destroying nature, which environmental photographs of terrible beauty might. And they don’t make you feel nostalgic for a constructed, pristine, and other nature, which any number of environmental photographs of landscapes might.

Energy Landscapes focuses entirely on human activity and the critical infrastructure choices (albeit western infrastructure choices) which affect the daily running of our lives and have huge implications for environmental impacts.

The images are not sexy nor as visually striking as say a World Press Photo winner. But they are important for another very simple reason. They did something unexpected which took me entirely by surprise and elicited a very different reaction than my normal one towards environmental photography. They made me feel happy and hopeful about the future.

Western Harbor, in Malmö, Sweden, is the first carbon-neutral neighborhood in Europe.
Western Harbor, Malmö, Sweden, the first carbon-neutral neighborhood in Europe. © Alex McClean

Bremen, Germany. Allotment gardens (“Schrebergärten”) are an important source of fresh local produce.
Bremen, Germany. Allotment gardens are an important source of fresh local produce. © Alex McClean