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Timelines of change - to see the Anthropocene

Conference contribution
Authors Tyrone Martinsson
Published in Helsinki Photomedia 30th March 2016
Publication year 2016
Published at Valand Academy
Language en
Keywords Anthropocene, photography, environmental, visual history
Subject categories Arts, Earth and Related Environmental Sciences, Cultural Studies


The development of photography and modernity coincide with the suggested timeframe of the transition from Holocene to Anthropocene. Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in their text in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme Newsletter No. 41, May 2000, establishing the concept of the Anthropocene, sets its origin around the industrial revolution and the latter part of the 18th century. Photography was born in a time of revolutionary social development and expansive industrialism and its rich cultural heritage serves as a witness to the history of human cultural evolution from the 1830s onwards – the early stages of mankind’s entry into the Anthropocene. Photography is a vehicle of modernity giving us an unprecedented opportunity to observe the development of our contemporary world and gives us a record of our relationship with nature. Photographs are unique although silent witnesses of the past 175 years of the Anthropocene. Our journey into the Anthropocene – is partly a story of transformation of place, human expansion, industrial growth and the impact of our unsustainable global economic system on the natural world. Historical photographs as visual data, being both documents and artistic representations, when sequenced in timelines correspond to conclusions in science on human impact on the Earth system, and visual knowledge can be added to the charts of the Great Acceleration where conclusions of visual studies of change in various areas of the earth show the same patterns: change is accelerating since 1950. A vast amount of historical photographs bear witness to a wide range of views of a changing world and one of the most important fields of using historical photograph’s as comparative tools within environmental research are glaciers that are identified as very good climate indicators. They respond dramatically to climate change as they are formed by the current climate and because ice deformation has a non-linear relation to the acting stress. Glaciers also fascinate with the complex mix of coldness and beauty, threat and vulnerability. Seeing them, on site, vanishing to the effects of global warming is emotional and in comparison with historical records a very direct experience. In relation to a question inspired by climate scientist James Hansen: How do we portrait the serious consequences of human effects on Earth, this presentation will ask through the tool of photography and vehicle of historical photographs: How do we see the Anthropocene?

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