Scott Conohar, Photographing Mining Pollution in Gold Rush: California [abstract] (2017) in
Photographies Volume 10: Issue 2.
In this article by Scott Conohar provides a fascinating insight into photography’s
conflicted role in both supporting capitalist exploration and as an evidential tool
supporting environmental advocacy.
The article can be accessed via the UCA library:
[Link last accessed: 01/10/2020]
Read the article and make some summary notes on the arguments Conohar presents in relation to the ‘industrial sublime’ of Watkins and the counter aesthetics at play in the work of J .A. Todd and “Clinch”. Reflection
Having read Conohar’s article, consider t o what e xtent such tensions exist within the work of contemporary photographers and their patrons?
The link is dead, but it is available from Lincoln U, where he works (or perhaps worked).
[ spellchecked 22Sep
[11Jun] Scott's fascinating but partial essay examines the differing viewpoints and approaches taken by three photographers in depicting the work of the North Bloomfield Mining Company (NBMCo) in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The essay also encompasses the development of capitalism in the US and earliest examples of environmental law suits and legislation.
Scott is described in the preface to his essay on the Lincoln University website as a founder of "the artist-led collective Environmental Resistance" which seeks to "protest against incidents of industrial pollution in the landscape" (Scott, 2017, Introduction).
NBMCo mined gold in California by blasting hills with high pressure water and extracting metal from the runoff (or tailings) with mercury. Subsequent leaks (sometimes substantial) from the poorly-maintained reservoirs of poisoned mud caused ruinous damage to the adjoining farmland.
The aesthetic photographs of Carleton Watkins, sponsored by NBMCo and used in their publicity and their legal defence, depicted the "industrial
sublime" (Edward Burtynsky's phrase).
J.A. Todd photographed the damage that resulted from NBMCo's operation, images used by the plaintiffs in Woodruff vs. North Bloomfield . Clinch (identified only by the logo on the backing medium) also supplied images for anti-NBMCo cases.
Scott cites Christine Hult-Lewis' Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (2011) which describes "how Carleton Watkins’ career depended upon patronage from an elite
coterie of capitalists who owned various mining claims in California, [making him] ‘one of the very first corporate photographers’". Watkins aesthetic approach is analysed at length several times during the essay: Scott emphasises the use of a "raised ocular perspective" and compositions that seek to integrate the destructive mining processes with the natural features that surround it.
Scott identifies this period in the development of US business practices as the beginning of what might be termed complex, distanced capitalism. Summarising Alan Trachtenberg (1995) Scott describes the situation before the mid 1800s, when corporations could only be created through state legislation and that this was only done when "the organisation serv[ed] the public good". But by the time NBMCo was formed in 1866, rapacious capitalism had arrived with its concomitant exploitation of resources, accounting irregularities and manipulation of markets, described by Scott (quoting Harvey, 2014) as "a structural flaw in capitalism", resulting in "private appropriation of the common wealth".
Noting the already mentioned phrase of Burtynsky, the "industrial sublime" and Terry Eagleton's use of the "Marxist sublime" (1989), Scott suggests that Watkins' work for NBMCo expresses both factors in "the physical transformation of the environment" and "the organisational capacity of capitalism to redirect rivers and move mountains, to influence the polices of the State and the legislature for its own ends".
Scott next describes the devastating effects NBMCo had on the surrounding landscape and the commercial interests pursued there when the "mercury infused sludge" flowed through the inadequate dams. A report of the 1875 floods is quoted (although the online link is no longer available),
Over 1 billion cubic yards of debris raised the bottom parts of San Francisco Bay by as much as 3 feet. The bed of the Sacramento River rose by 16 feet, impeding navigation and causing millions of dollars in damage to California’s Central Valley farms (California State Parks).
California State Parks, quoted in Scott, 2017
A group was formed in 1878, the Anti-Debris Association, which brought a series of lawsuits, the first success being Edward Woodruff vs. North Bloomfield , requiring NBMCo to construct better dams. p.14
Although this case might be initially perceived as David vs. Goliath, significantly, Woodruff, the named plaintiff, was a wealthy "landlord and real estate speculator": while the case was partly between conflicting corporate interests, nevertheless, the Anti Debris Association did represent small-scale farmers too. There are two notable aspects to the case: firstly, Scott quotes Chatterjee's (n.d.) description of it as, "the first major environmental decision"; secondly was the use of photographs in the case, taken by John A. Todd, a local practitioner (fig. B2).
Scott repeatedly describes Todd's inadequacies as a photographer when compared to Watkins ("it is fair to
say that Todd did not share Watkins’ exemplary skill and ambition as a photographer" p.15; "Todd
presents the viewer with an unbalanced diagonal composition of the dam", p.17; "Todd’s
photograph of the North Bloomfield levee is interesting to consider because of the
limited aesthetic quality of the image" p.17). He suggests that Todd's fog. B2 "provides a counter-aesthetic strategy" to Watkins' beguiling and sophisticated images, as though Todd intentionally suppressed artistic sensibilities in pursuit of early reportage aesthetic.
By the time of Todd's second expedition, following another dam failure in 1883, Scott identifies a different approach so that, "it is easy in this instance to mistake the compositional style for that of Watkins", employs "the raised ocular perspective" and "forms a picturesque scene out of the disaster zone" (p.19). Scott quotes Mary Warner Marion, all photographers relied upon "aesthetic codes situated in economic necessity" in that period (1993, p.26) and that the California State Geological Surveys had a commercial purpose in addition to the ostensible scientific one.
Turning to the ‘Clinch’ photographs, Scott suspects that these might have been produced by "W. A. Clinch …
resident at Eureka Gallery on Mill Street, Grass Valley, Nevada, during the 1890s, but the identification is tentative. Clinch's images were used as evidence in US vs. North Bloomfield Mining Company  which concerned NBMCo's failure to comply with Caminetti Act : the Act required mining operations to be registered with the State and subject to rigorous inspections.
Scott notes the inept composition of the images, highlighting several features, including "a low ocular perspective" (p.24). Fig. B3 is singled out for attention and compared to Watkins' fig. B1, Clinch's "muddy plume of water, which significantly does not share the sparkling highlights of Watkins’". Scott concludes that,
The importance of the ‘Clinch’ counter-aesthetic is that what could be
described as the image’s utilitarian and proto-reductivist qualities succeed in demythologising
the spectacle of the ‘industrial sublime’ by depicting the Malakoff
Diggins works as a tawdry and chaotic operation.
Scott, 2017, p.27
In short, Watkins' images glorify NBMCo's operation, Clinch's and the earlier Todd’s expose its exploitative squalidness.
Watkins' images, deploying a sublime aesthetic are some of the earliest used in corporate promotion, Clinch's and particularly Todd's were some of the earliest used in environmental legal actions.
LPE Part 5, Research Task 2 References
Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment[LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
California State Parks. "Guide to the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
Collection." Web. 10 November 2016.
California State Parks (n.d.) Guide to the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park [online]. malakoffdigginsstatepark.org. Then available from http://malakoffdigginsstatepark.org/history/north-bloomfield-gravel-miningcompany [Accessed 10 November 2016 in Scott, 2017, no longer active].
Chatterjee, P. (ed) (n.d.) Legacy of Poison. [online]. 1849.org. Available from http://www.1849.org/ggg/legacy.html [Accessed 10 November 2016 in Scott, 2017].
Eagleton, T. (1989) The Ideology of the Aesthetic. in The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings
in History, Aesthetics and the Subject. Peter De Bolla (ed). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Harvey, D. (2014) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. 1st ed. London: Profile Books.
Hult-Lewis, C. (2011) The Mining Photographs of Carleton Watkins, 1858-1891, and the
Origins of Corporate Photography. Boston University.
Scott, C. (2017) Photographing Mining Pollution in Gold Rush: California [online]. lincoln.ac.uk. Available from https://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/id/eprint/25403/13/25403%20Final%20Photographies%20Bloomfield.pdf [Accessed 9 June 2022].
Trachtenberg, A. (1995) The Incorporation of America, Culture & Society in the Gilded Age.
New York: Hill & Wang.
Page created 11-Jun-2022 | Page updated 22-Sep-2022