Nature Photography - an intergrative View
by Carll Goodpasture, 2000

To most modern minds, natural science appears to stand in opposition to the humanities,art and social science. Yet there are signs that the walls between the two citadels of human learning may have to crumble. Like it or not, we have entered the century of the environment where the foremost of societal problems is to recognize and address the ecological liability of a fragile living earth. As one of the best known advocating ecologists, Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson, has written, «we need integration not just of the natural sciences but also of the social sciences and humanities, in order to cope with the issues of urgency and complexity that may otherwise be too great for humans to manage” (Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Knopf, New York, 1998). As Wilson’s notoriety attests, in the present age, at millennium time, the balance between art and science urgently needs to need change.

This essay is a call for the use of photography to heighten environmental awareness and to deliver a message important for the long-term survival of our species. Although there are a number of ways that art might suffuse science, I focus on using nature photography as a medium of personal expression to illustrate and reveal my feelings and emotional reactions to the natural environment. I have photographed nature since old enough to pay attention and to point a camera. I teach photography in order to maintain a mastery of its craft. Photographing nature is an example of fulfilling a calling - what one “must do” to paraphrase Rilke the poet. The realization that art and science might influence each other in positive ways came at mid-career, a time in life when it seemed natural to begin mentioning rather than seeking a mentor. After a career in research science, I began teaching. Teaching introductory biology forced me into a deep confrontation with the important issues of our time - the academic environment offered intellectual freedom and teaching encouraged a break from the habits of specialization. My epiphany came when I realized that there is a near total lack of public appreciation of societal dependence upon the biosphere. Furthermore, this lack of understanding of the value of natural ecosystems traces, in part, to failure of the scientific community to effectively convey information to the public. If humanity is to settle down before it wrecks the planet, to use Wilson’s metaphor, a profound rethinking must infuse biosocial polity. Although Dr. Wilson doesn’t tell us how to integrate art and science, teaching and doing photography with an informed passion might be a way to start.

Looking at the human predicament while considering the vast legacy of accumulated scientific knowledge indicates that there is a fallacy in believing that if we are intellectually informed we shall make wise decisions. Consider the suggestions that exhibiting photographic art is analogues to technical publication in a scientific journal. The advantage of art over science is that it has the potential to communicate not only with a broad audience, but at the level of the emotions. One use of photography is to visually explore the interdependence between man and nature. Not only can photography document the natural history of endangered species and disappearing habitats the medium can, in creative hands, portray human relationship to the environment. Because images can be used to inform and to inspire, photographing nature is an appropriate response to the global emergency of ecosystem compromise and biodiversity loss. In the analytical terms of science, nature photography is a descriptive tool. In the creative hands of an artist, the medium might have the ability to help us conceptualize the shifting balance between our specie’s needs and the needs of those of others on the planet. Contemporary nature photography is rich in aesthetic quality and informational content: its niche is to render nature as art using the knowledge of science.

While it seems obvious that teaching, writing, and lecturing are important activities for scientists to engage in, it is more difficult to imagine how art might elucidate the meaning of scientific knowledge. Consider the enigma that the past 30 years have been a boon to nature photography but a bust for the environment: not only scientists, but all of us, even nature photographers have failed to appreciate our responsibility to promote concern for and awareness of both the human and natural environment - the thin film of life we call the biosphere.

I suggest that it is experience of nature that is lacking, rather than knowledge of the natural world and how it functions. Can we learn to love and want to protect what we do not know? A good place to seek environmental awareness is right at home, for example, in the garden looking at small scale. The garden is attractive to us as objective observers of nature as well as satisfying to our subjective feelings about living things. Pollination for example, is one of the most attractive miracles in a garden. Floral biologists conclude that the majority of flowering plants depend on pollinating insects in order to reproduce. Without pollinators, people wouldn’t have sweet fruits such as apples and melons or addictive seeds such as coffee and cacao. We need to realize that pollinators are as important to flowering plants as the telephone is to a teenager. I suggest that by encouraging activities of the heart such as gardening and nature watching, we can encourage awareness of the key role that pollinators play in maintaining the integrity of ecosystems, both natural and man made. But the real beauty in gardening is our experience, not just of its flowers as poetic metaphor, but of ourselves engaged in an animated relationship with nature that the grace of flowers and their pollinators represent.

I find that flowers and pollinators are an especially fruitful subject for camera work. Not only is there drama and beauty, but information content of vital human interest. The pollination of flowering plants by insects is an exceptionally photogenic example of the integrated and interdependent community of organisms that comprise an ecosystem. Although green plants are the primary products at the base of the food chain, animals such as bats, hummingbirds, and insects are the pollinators that make possible the existence, the evolution and the survival of most plants.

If pollination is fundamental to the biosphere, then the liabilities pollinators is an important realization. In fact there is increasing recognition worldwide of a decline in native pollinating communities. Probably the best documented example of pollinator decline in Europe is the bumblebee situation in Britain: there were once may species but only a few survive today with their distributions greatly reduced. As habitats are altered, many of the inhabitants are lost. Can nature photography be used to help us contemplate the pollinator’s role as essential partner in plant reproduction and key to ecosystem integrity? I suggest stretching the imagination further to see the pollinator’s life story as a metaphor of man’s relationship to other living things and their decline as an indication of a growing separation from nature. It seems to be more than green issue romanticism to suggest that the pollinator crisis presents an opportunity to make the enlightened connection between endangered species, threatened habitats, and a decline in the experience of nature. The millennium presents us with an opportunity to celebrate a growing societal recognition of environmental awareness as well as a greater need for integrative knowledge. Perhaps it is correct to suggest that only with direct experience of living creatures, can we come to know intimately the life forms we depend on for the survival of our species. Can we construct and maintain a society when few keep in touch with the roots of their human nature? It is clear that engaging nature has led my life’s work to change through revelation. Photographing nature would seem to be one of many opportunities to help us visualize our place with natural things. Although the challenge is monumental, documentary nature photography can be used to help unite concern for the natural world with the persuasive power of visual art. Wilson may also be right in hissupposition: if change is in the air, it may well come from integrative scientists learning to communicated with lenticular vision. Editors note:

While best known in the bio-medical sciences for discoveries in human clinical genetics, Goodpasture is recognized as a biological photographer with extraordinary skill. As an entomologist, cytogenetecist, and nature photographer, he combines the objective concern of the scientist with the expressive will of an artist. But biology is only one love; visual art is the other. A measure of his successes are photography exhibitions at The Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History, The National Zoological Park, and an on-going traveling exhibition of close-up nature photography advocating the the protection of pollinators worldwide.