Wells on Hore, 'Visions of Nature: How Landscape Photography Shaped Settler Colonialism'

Jarrod Hore
Amanda Wells

Jarrod Hore. Visions of Nature: How Landscape Photography Shaped Settler Colonialism. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. xvii + 333 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-38126-1

Reviewed by Amanda Wells (University of Newcastle) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58303

Jarrod Hore’s debut monograph is an environmental, transnational, visual-cultural, and postcolonial exploration of the ways that mid-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century landscape photographers helped to shape settler-colonial relationships with the environment. Hore draws together and braids strands from a broad range of disciplines to build an argument that positions the construction of transnational settler-colonial “visions of nature” as generative lenses to interrogate extractive and dispossessive colonialism in California, southeastern Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand.

The book is structured around six ideas that inform settler-colonial constructions of, and investments in, the natural world through photographic compositions. Throughout the seven chapters, Hore weaves the geobiographies of six landscape photographers who lived and worked across the American West and what Hore calls the Tasman world—Victoria and Tasmania in the southeast of Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand. The six photographers, active between 1850 and the 1920s, are Carleton Watkins (1829-1916, California, the American West), Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904, California, the American West), Alfred Burton (1834-1914, Aotearoa New Zealand), John Beattie (1859-1930, Tasmania, Australia), Daniel Mundy (1826-81, Aotearoa New Zealand), and Nicholas Caire (1837-1918, Victoria, Australia). The book contains fifty-three images, including illustrative examples of described landscape photography as well as paintings, exhibition photos, a wood engraving, and a map.

At the center of Visions of Nature is the observation that interpersonally unrelated (white male) photographers from the mid- to late nineteenth century produced strikingly similar visions of the natural worlds of colonial landscapes. Hore argues that the reasons for these similar visions lie in the mutual ontologies that the photographers shared across the colonial context. Taking a close reading of the compositions and themes of photographic archives of these photographers in conjunction with their geobiographies, Hore argues, reveals something of the logics of settler colonialism.

As a work of environmental history, Visions of Nature draws on the work of historians such as Ian Tyrrell, Libby Robin, and Tom Griffiths to connect transnationalism and the importance of the specifically local. The book fits neatly into the Australian and American West schools of environmental history that Hore draws upon. The particular orientation toward ecology and geology in combination with deliberate consideration of Indigenous sovereignty and settler coloniality connects the book with ongoing literature from multiple fields within the discipline of history. The context that Hore gives in the introduction of the Uluru Statement of the Heart signals the fact that the author writes from an Australian context, but in taking a transnational settler-colonial lens, the themes and insights are not at all parochial. Hore ably makes the case for interpreting the works of these photographers across national and colonial boundaries, while acknowledging contingencies and the importance of the local.

The tension between visions that highlight the grandeur of the majestically sublime in a universal sense, with attention to the specificity of developing understandings of geological formations across deep time is shown to reveal common pathways of settler-colonial thought. The “spectre of waste” and the deliberate erasure of Indigenous peoples from settler-colonial worldviews are identified as key to understanding how and why visions of nature return to common themes and compositions in service of notions of settler territoriality. In this way, Visions of Nature demonstrates how the constructed universality of Western aesthetics and sciences “cultivated ties to place and diminished existing Indigenous connection” (p. 235).

The first chapter of the book lays the groundwork for the reader to understand the lives and geographies—geobiographies—of the photographers featured, while the following six chapters examine connected themes that are interpreted from both landscape photography and extratextual information informed by those geobiographies. Hore’s concluding paragraphs for each chapter are succinct and informative, and his decision to use quite wordy titles and subtitles enables a quick reading of the book for those wanting a more targeted read. The section titled “Settler Nativity, White Men, and the Politics of Race” would make for an effective selected reading on blending postcolonial, visual-cultural, and environmental histories in service of a contemporary articulation of settler coloniality.

The strongest chapter that makes the argument for landscape photography as reflective and productive of settler coloniality is chapter 4: “Tanga Whakaāhua or, the Man Who Makes the Likenesses: Managing Indigenous Presence in Colonial Landscapes.” Hore skillfully moves key ideas about settler coloniality from theorists such as Patrick Wolfe and Homi Baba into the territory of photography, showing how these landscape photographers and their produced works participated in, produced, and exploited settler-colonial place making that displaced and erased Indigenous people from sovereign Country. This chapter compellingly argues that photographers not only took charming pictures of “well-framed pastoral vistas” or “impressive mountain scenery” but engaged in “a politics of representation that diverted the photographic gaze” to construct Indigenous absence in favor of idealized “wilderness” (p. 135). Hore makes the case for taking seriously photographs and their extratextual information as historical sources. As he confirms in the book’s conclusion, settler-colonial landscape photographs “articulated with various other technologies and instruments of settlement to categorize natures, apprehend space and time, and diminish or disguise Indigenous ownership” (p. 241)—the photographs are tangible evidence of the “imaginative possession” (p. 240) of settler expansion.

For a book that takes landscape photographs and the extratextual information that accompanies them as its source material, Hore’s sights are set firmly beyond the frame of the photographic genre. At several points of the book, Hore’s engagement with the realms of science—particularly geology—suggest future directions for his body of work. In this way Hore’s work signals connections between settler-colonial histories, Indigenous histories, environmental histories, and histories of science and technology. Visions of Nature, then, is a rigorous and broad-ranging exploration that spans the highly local to the constructed “global,” and offers its readers new threads and connections to follow.

Citation: Amanda Wells. Review of Hore, Jarrod, Visions of Nature: How Landscape Photography Shaped Settler Colonialism. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58303

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.