Skip to main content

Natural Visions

The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform

Walden Pond. The Grand Canyon.Yosemite National Park. Throughout the twentieth century, photographers and filmmakers created unforgettable images of these and other American natural treasures. Many of these images, including the work of Ansel Adams, continue to occupy a prominent place in the American imagination. Making these representations, though, was more than a purely aesthetic project. In fact, portraying majestic scenes and threatened places galvanized concern for the environment and its protection. Natural Visions documents through images the history of environmental reform from the Progressive era to the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, showing the crucial role the camera played in the development of the conservation movement.

In Natural Visions, Finis Dunaway tells the story of how visual imagery—such as wilderness photographs, New Deal documentary films, and Sierra Club coffee-table books—shaped modern perceptions of the natural world. By examining the relationship between the camera and environmental politics through detailed studies of key artists and activists, Dunaway captures the emotional and spiritual meaning that became associated with the American landscape. Throughout the book, he reveals how photographers and filmmakers adapted longstanding traditions in American culture—the Puritan jeremiad, the romantic sublime, and the frontier myth—to literally picture nature as a place of grace for the individual and the nation.

Beautifully illustrated with photographs by Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and a host of other artists, Natural Visions will appeal to a wide range of readers interested in American cultural history, the visual arts, and environmentalism.

Read an excerpt.

280 pages | 8 color plates, 44 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2005

Art: Photography

Culture Studies

Film Studies

History: American History


"In often moving prose and through a select history of landscape photography and film, Natural Visions offers a compelling analysis of how changing environmental politics in America were intimately connected to different ways of seeing nature. Finis Dunaway offers a novel look into the history of American environmentalism, one that demonstrates the centrality of the visual in the portrayal and defense of nature in America. This book is an important addition to a growing body of literature on the historical role of visual media in shaping the American environmental imaginary."

Gregg Mitman, author of Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film

“Beautifully written and a pleasure to read, Finis Dunaway’s Natural Visions offers many shrewd insights. The book will be welcomed by environmental and cultural historians as a thoughtful and insightful scholarly contribution and should find a broad general readership with its accessible prose and engaging illustrations.”

Paul S. Boyer, editor of The Oxford Companion to United States History

“Looking at photographs by Herbert Gleason, Ansel Adams, and Eliot Porter; New Deal documentaries by Pare Lorentz and Robert Flaherty; and posters and coffee table tomes published by the Sierra Club, Natural Visions tells the story of how pictures helped modern Americans imagine ecology as a new kind of civil religion. In this fresh and insightful book, Finis Dunaway traces the intersections of visual images and religious feeling from the Progressive era to the first Earth Day and convincingly explains how nature photography’s ‘gospel of seeing’ was translated into a moral mission of environmental defense.”

Erika Doss, author of Twentieth-Century American Art

“It is the artists behind the images who interest [Dunaway] most, in particular the way they were carried along by, or leaned against, the political and cultural winds, and how their actions led to the modern environmental movement. He has a fine eye for subtleties, and a light touch.”

Michael Bond | New Scientist

"A fresh addition to any library’s environmental or photography collection." --Library Journal

Patricia Ann Owens | Library Journal

 “In Natural Visions, Dunaway takes us on a cultural tour of many of the most politically powerful environmental images of the twentieth century, using a richly biographical approach to situate images within their full contexts.”

Thomas Roberston | American Quarterly

“Until Finis Dunaway’s Natural Visions, no one had yet produced a history of the camera’s effect on environmental politics. . . . Well written, and at times even poetic, Natural Visions is a compelling study with much to offer both general readers and specialists in environmental representation.”

Daniel J. Philippon | Environmental History

"By revealing how a key series of books and films on environmental themes were carefully constructed to convey particular political messages, [Dunaway] makes a valuable addition to our understanding of photographic history as well as the history of environmental reform."

Martha A. Sandweis | Western Historical Quarterly

"[Dunaway] has done an admirable job of tracing the twentieth century’s tradition of visual environmentalism. . . . That the book feels too short for its rich subject or the power of its questions is not so much to regret."

Peter Bacon Hales | Technology and Culture

"His balanced and thoughtful consideration of the subject matter, and the careful attention he gives to the biographies of his subject, make Dunaway’s well-written book an insightful contribution to studies of environmental cultural production."

Andil Gosine | Alternatives Journal

"Essential for readers with interests in American environmental history and visual studies. . . . Dunaway provides thorough biographical and analytical research on each artist, connecting their work to larger cultural perceptions about the natural world."

Gwynne Middleton | Isle

"This compelling, beautifully written book argues that conservationists used the power of photographic images to shape popular perceptions of nature and influence environmental politics. . . . An outstanding work. Specialists in material culture, art history, American studies, and environmental history should find it informative and thought provoking."

Mark Fiege | Winterthur Portfolio

"Dunaway’s book is a deft contribution to cultural history. . . . Dunaway shows how deeply ecological insight, environmental politics, and aesthetic judgment can shape one another. . . . Dunaway says much about abiding visual cues in American environnmentalism, while saying a great deal as well about American traditions in literature, visual arts, ecological thought, and consumer culture."

Frieda Knobloch | American Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Part 1 - Transcendental Vision
1. Gleason’s Transparent Eyeball
Part 2 - The Nature of the New Deal
2. The Decline to Dust
3. The River of Time
4. A Flicker of Permanence
Part 3 - Picturing the American Earth
5. Nature on the Coffee Table
6. Thoreau with a Camera
7. American Elegy, American Renewal
Epilogue: The Ecological Sublime


Canadian Historical Association: Wallace K. Ferguson Prize

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press