Par Yogan Muller (UCLA)



This paper will try to hinge on the forecasts outlined in 1972 in The Limits to Growth and the work of Graham Turner (2014) who compared what the Meadows et al. projected and historical data.

Photography’s accountability in the current ecological conundrum is a subject of prime importance today, as we receive signs that we are at another crossroads in environmental history. Often portrayed as a gratuitous act and practice, photography was part and parcel of a vast conveying infrastructure made of a dense network of railroads, maritime routes and telegraphic lines, when the Industrial Revolution gained traction (i.e., 1850s-1870s). It thus contributed to an imperial project of expansion, and the growing size of its infrastructure promoted an expansion of photographic visibilities as well as a highly technical relationship between things near and far.

There has been a somewhat mysterious – albeit physically adequate – strong relationship between photography, landscape photography especially, and energy (Yogan Muller, 2019). Building upon those conclusions, I will try to show how photography made us enter the geological picture of the Anthropocene by way of an alternate narrative called « Phagocene » (Christophe Bonneuil, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, 2016b, 148-169), that era of gluttony. A photography-energy-gluttony triptych is thus outlined.

The unprecedented transformation of the environment, felt, seen and achieved globally in the Great Acceleration[1] (Will Steffen et al., 2015, 81-98) is a long technical and historical sequence in which photography was instrumental. Striving in a world where an increasing energy consumption is observed (Our World in Data, 2018), that is, a world in flux and characterized by a growing complexity (Jospeh Tainter, 1988), photography stood out as a prime auxiliary to assess and assert physical change.

In an answer to the current inflation of what I will call « all-form photography », a contemporary reincarnation of Alan Sekula’s critic of the « unifying semantic regime of formalism » (Sekula, 1978, 866) that deals with form alone and aggravates the divorce between form and matter, an ecology of photography is introduced together with the notion of peak photography. Hinging on the shrinking pool of physical affordances, such an ecology is, as we shall see, an ecology of form.

1) Far-flung places as a proving ground for photography’s resolving power

Between the 1850s and 1870s, photography accompanied the expanding radius of action of western powers. In France, among many others Louis de Cormenin (1852, 98) praised « the hardiness of photographers, those envoys who reached the most remote places on the globe » (Claudet, 1860, 277). Commending Maxime Du Camp for the photographs he took in Egypt in 1851, de Cormenin also wrote: « […] heliography will go around the world for us and will retrieve the universe in a portfolio, while we sit in our armchair ». Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East were reached and photographed in the early 1850s, Central Europe quickly followed. Then came the Mont-Blanc in France (early 1860s), the American West (late 1860s) and the Arctic (early 1870s). What is of prime interest here is the nature of these remote places for the then young medium of photography.

Shortly after its birth, photography became part and parcel of a cutting-edge conveying infrastructure that consisted of railroads, steam engines and the telegraph. Alophe (1861, 3-4) and Adolphe Quetelet (1873, 1) praised that technological quadriptych. Photography and railroads have had a unique relationship not just in logistical terms. Louis de Cormenin was perhaps the first to praise[2] their simultaneous birth in La Lumière in 1852 (de Cormenin, 1852, 98). Roland Recht (1989, 143) affirms that they virtually left « no corner of the world inaccessible to anyone ». Allan Sekula (1984, 79) also describes how photography was « hitched to the locomotive of positivism ». Moreover, Rebecca Solnit (2003, 9-16) posited that their usage annihilated time and space.

In retrospect, there is now strong evidence (Bonneuil, Fressoz, 2016a, 202-205) that in the second half of the nineteenth century, coal powered the « long arm » of the technological west. In turn, unprecedented fluxes of matter converged from « peripheral » to Western countries (Bonneuil, Fressoz, 2016a, 235-242). In other words, western powers saw their radii of action and supply grow quite significantly. By tapping into remote deposits of precious ores but also food[3] (Élisée Reclus, 1866, 372), it is as though the sustenance horizon receded and became essentially alien to their growing urban population (Bonneuil, Fressoz, 2016b, 154). In other words, expansion was a good synonym for material abstraction subsidized by fossil fuels, first by coal and then by oil[4]. Photography partook in such a dematerialization (Solnit, 2003, 19-20). In River of Shadows. Eadweard Muybridge And the Technological Wild West, Solnit expands on an article published in June 1859 by the American physicist and essayist Oliver Wendell-Holmes who wrote what follows:

« Form is henceforth divorced from matter. […] Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. […] Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object Of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us ».

The reading of Holmes and Solnit opens up new paths to photographic investigations. Far from being gratuitous, photography engendered a decisive form/matter divorce. Delving deeper in Holmes’ account, dematerialization is made complete, at least theoretically, if one observes that looking at the world through the camera made physical substance secondary and physical appearance paramount. While the latter would still signify (i.e., lead to) the former, the burdensome and oftentimes remote nature of matter becomes readily available by way of impeccable photographic facsimiles. In other words, the divorce between form and matter gave birth to a new relationship between things near and far and photography was a determining operator of expansion, retrieval and, in later stages, commodification.

Within the growing sphere of influence of western countries, the increase in energy use resulted in a greater transformative firepower. The underlying axiom here is that energy use is a good proxy for physical transformation through the use of machines (Jean-Marc Jancovici, 2015). In a world in flux, new visibilities were needed (André Rouillé, 1989, 31) to make the acceleration of a whole host of trends tangible to western eyes. Olivier Rey (2016, 83) shows how statistics quickly fulfilled a need to frame a plethora of offshoot activities as well as trends in order to extract meaningful information. Photography was used to fulfill strikingly similar acquisitive pursuits, as Susan Sontag remarked (1977, 7). Not only could photography attend to complex subjects, but on top of that, its instantaneous actuation, mirror-like rendition and minimal inflection could freeze off physical change in an inflexible manner (De Cormenin, 1852, 98; Recht, 1989, 143). Conversely, the unprecedented speed, scale and complexity of physical fluxes required a rendition technique that could adequately portray an accelerating thermo-industrial world. That is why photography was one of the most suitable auxiliaries to assess and assert physical change when the Industrial Revolution took off. That historical trajectory of photography is also illuminated by Susan Sontag (1977, 16):

« Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change. While an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing ».

An observation Rebecca Solnit (2003, 15) complements quite beautifully:

« The world was growing larger and more complicated, and photography was both an agent of this enlargement and a device for trying to sort it all out, to own it, to make it manageable ».

As a result, photography was not a gratuitous, detached or neutral act by any stretch of the imagination, even in those early days. Not only photography was one of the most suitable auxiliaries to retrieve distant visual appearances (cf. supra) but also a medium that carried western power over, where uncharted and untransformed lands lied bare open.

A prime example of how photography channeled and utilized that imperial energy, is the geological surveys that took place in the American West with great intensity in the 1860s. The decisive transformations of the region Timothy O’Sullivan’s pictures brought about can be seen as an example of this trend. As a member of the King Survey party, led by geologist Clarence King between 1867 and 1872, O’Sullivan produced images of an enduring quality. Compared to the production of his peers such as Carleton E. Watkins, Henry W. Jackson or Alfred A. Hart, O’Sullivan’s pictures[5] cast aside the picturesque and arbor a gives the images their usefulness. Incidentally, it is tempting to assert that O’Sullivan knew he was putting that power in good use, perhaps more than any other of his contemporaries (Weston Naef, James Wood, 1975, 133).

Fig. 1: Timothy O’Sullivan, Junction, Green & Yampah Cañons, Colorado, 1872. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

In addition, O’Sullivan’s pictures suggest that a grand two-fold experiment was carried out in the American West: formations were impeccably catalogued as geological specimens and fruitful photographic rendition attempts at the same time (Naef, Wood, 1975, 129). High vantage points rendered empty canyons and gorges as incommensurate and well beyond the human comprehension but well within the range of photographic rendition. Nothing was too grand, too complex, too heterogenous, too layered for the then young medium of photography (Recht, 1989, 143; Alan Trachtenberg, 1989, 132). By encountering the wild – because uncharted – expenses of the American West, western civilization had the means to transform an unfathomable amount space and eons of geological accumulation in almost no time at all in a highly portable image. This transformation of the geological intricacies into impeccable bi-dimensional images is a clear account of photographic insatiable potency, not to say gluttony. No doubt O’Sullivan’s pictures had a positive impact on the psyches of his contemporaries (Trachtenberg, 1989, 131): his photographs subdued the incommensurate nature of the American West and made it look, as a result, all the more habitable (Keith F. Davis, 2011, 74). Together with expedition photographs in the Mont-Blanc or the Arctic, O’Sullivan’s pictures confirm the cutting-edge nature of the photographic enterprise, a product of an imperial energy that, more importantly, made western civilization enter the geological picture.

2) Energy and new photographic opportunities in the American West in the 1970s

Jean Kempf pointed out that the American West is a place where artists have produced frequent reassessments (Kempf, 1993, 29-48). By referring to survey photography, not only did landscape photographers[6] like Robert Adams reinvigorated the tropes of their illustrious nineteenth-century peers but they also acknowledged the inherent transformative power survey photographs exerted on the once wild icons of the American West. Robert Adams (1983, 4) is quite explicit:

« One was likely to discover that their subjects were flat gone—the Salt Lake Valley under smog, many of the canyons under water, Shoshone Falls reduced to support irrigation, Mono Lake drained down the aqueduct to Los Angeles. Suddenly the size of the American space proved no defense ».

In these words, Robert Adams draws a straight line between the late 1860s and the early 1970s. Delving deeper into his claim, Robert Adams actually points toward a transmission of inheritance between the irremediably lost qualitative nature of these three iconic locales – subject of equally iconic photographs – shot during the Great Surveys, and a contemporary western landscape of sheer utilitarian nature. As Davis showed (2011, 74), survey photographs of the American West « provided visual proof that the region had the climate and resources necessary for settlement », before adding: « […] The survey’s ultimate aim [laid] in determining the region’s potential for habitation and exploitation ». Bearing Adams’ and Davis’ claims in mind, figure 2 sheds light on the extensive infrastructure of the Los Angeles aqueduct.

Fig. 2 : Adapted from Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), Los Angeles Aqueduct Recording Project, Washington: National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, 2001. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


Fig. 3: Timothy O’Sullivan, Volcanic islands in Mono Lake, California, 1868, part of the Fortieth Parallel Survey. Courtesy: Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

In 1941, the water from the streams feeding Mono Lake were redirected into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. As time passed, the level of the lake dropped, and the lower sections of the source streams were dried out. By 1981, diversions of water from Mono Lake’s inflow creeks had caused it to lose half its volume and double its salinity. After O’Sullivan shot Mono Lake in 1868, this is how a city like Los Angeles transformed a once wild pinnacle into a mere fresh water reservoir for a growing urban population. The troubles in the ecosystem ultimately lead to troubles in the new social life that was built around it, and now movements emerge asking for the protection of the landscape, like the Mono Lake Committee, warning the public against the risks of drought of this historical place since 1978.

Fig. 4 : The Mono Lake Committee, 08.03.2013. Courtesy of Arya Harp, Communications Director, Mono Lake Committee.

Harkening back to the notion of transmission of inheritance, it is worth noting that Adams admired Timothy O’Sullivan and Dorothea Lange (Alison Nordström, Britt Salvensen, 2010, 250). Now that the « American space proves no defense » (Adams, 1983, 4), the « American marginalized environment » that was « marching across the land and being exported » as Lewis Baltz remarked (Sylvain Roumette, 1997), becomes a subject. Furthermore, by acknowledging O’Sullivan, an underlying rationale becomes manifest, one in which the mythical vastness of the American West of the 1860s was then being gauged by looking at the prosaic vastness that was urban sprawl. In order to get a sense of that new type of uniformity, geographer Carl Abbott pointed out that the foundations of about 100 new homes were laid out every single day in the 1950s in Lakewood, a suburb southeast of downtown L.A. (Abbott, 2008, 166). Incidentally, a visual measure of that staggering development is given by Peter Blake in God’s Own Junkyard. The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (1964). In Blake’s unapologetic account of urban sprawl, the airborne pictures of William Garnett (cf. infra fig. 5) speaks volumes and clearly illuminate the scale of the enterprise.

Figure 5: Double page spread of Peter Blake, God’s Own Junkyard. The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape, plates 104, 105, 106,107, Subdivision under construction, near Los Angeles. Coll. Part.

It is also worth noting that the same year of 1964 the Wilderness Act was signed into law. The goal was to «assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.» (United States Senate, 1964, 890). 14,218 square miles (i.e., 36,826 km2) were initially protected in 1964, that is, 0.375% of the United States land. In other words, without taking into consideration the acreage under the stewardship of the U.S. National Park Service at that time, 99.625% of the U.S. land were considered not wild and open to «expanding settlement and growing mechanization». Hence, the fact that «the American Space proves no defense», as Adams remarked, is unequivocal.

The photographer, again, goes on to observe that:

« […] Their pictures do lead us now to reflect on a tragic progression. They remind us of the opportunity the openness provided for the confusion of space and freedom, an understandable but arrogant mistake for which we all now suffer » (Adams, 1983, 4).

He adds (Ibid., 5): « Our destiny is to suffer the imprisonment of places like Los Angeles, with its twelve-lane ‘freeways’ » before raising a rather severe question:

« What is the relevance of these old photographs, then, to a country that has enacted a tragedy that has, in Roethke’s words, ‘failed to live up to its geography’? » (Ibid., 6).

Clearly, twenty years after the Wilderness Act, space in the American West had become an even greater issue. In fact, it is as though the project of westward expansion – and the corresponding expansion of individual freedom Adams also touches upon – had taken up all the available space. By raising his final question, Adams ultimately suggests how survey photographs were frames of reference[7], that is, upstream visual transformations that (1) made western civilization step into the geological picture and (2) prompted the transformation of the landscape he and his peers would photograph with great intensity from the 1970s onwards. In other words, the historically distant set of expedition photographs was nonetheless present (potent) in the use of space and resources in the American West of 1970s.

Putting on energy glasses, such a gluttony of space comes as no surprise. In the U.S., energy consumption per capita increased by nearly 45% between 1960 and the first oil shock of 1973 (Our World in Data, 2018). At a time where it became quite clear that what we were intensely altering couldn’t be put back in place[8] landscape photographers could feel conflicted. In fact, the «new world» (Roumette, 1997) Lewis Baltz photographed was unfolding in the very undoing of natural qualities of the American West. Additionally, the idea of an absence of style[9], a minimal inflection tantamount to describing the urban landscape as such, was feasible as long as the world of the 1970s would run its course. Conversely, the very infrastructure of alterations was the primary conveyor of new photographic opportunities. Photography is present all along, for Adams and his peers to witness alterations as they occur, those alterations being the result of a gluttonous energy consumption and the distant repercussions survey photographs brought about in the 1860s.


3) Approaching peak photography

It just so happens that we’ve closely been tracking the Standard Run, or « business as usual » scenario (Turner, 2014) outlined in the early 1970s by the Meadows and their colleagues in The Limits to Growth. Incidentally, Robert Adams (2018) illuminates a similar trend in the art world over the exact same period. In a recent juror talk imbued with a serious tinge of gravitas and a palpable wholehearted empathy for the photographers he exhibited, Adams, then 81 years old and with a career spanning more than 50 years, identified Dada artists as the initiators of today’s trends:

« The Dada movement in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century sort of handed off a hand-grenade. People kind of played with it. Then about 1970, it occurred to somebody that if you decided that art couldn’t be defined and that the only thing that distinguishes art was novelty, then you had a key to making enormous amounts of money. And it seems to me that for about the last fifty years, we’ve seen the result of that ».

Earlier in his talk[10], Adams foresees a continuation of such trends:

« The art world, I think, in 25 years, if we’re still around, they’re gonna say: ‘look, how perfectly the art world is a mirror image of the hedge fund world’ ».

In retrospect, we know now that we’ve gone past the Earth’s carrying-capacity in the early 1970s and have been living way beyond what we can afford since then (WWF, 2016, 75). The abandon of the gold standard, the oil shocks in 1973 and 1979, an ever rising debt and increasing unemployment rate all happened past that turning point of modern history.

Now that we seem to be at another crossroads of environmental history, we can seriously consider a low-energy future, that is, a future where there are less and less means to transform our environment from a physical standpoint (Jancovici, 2015). The question is what does that contraction entail for gluttony and, of course, photography. We can refer to Susan Sontag when she claims that « photography has become the quintessential art of affluent, wasteful, restless societies » (1977, 69). While that remark strongly resonates with the world of the « Glorious Thirty », it resonates even louder with the world of the « Great Acceleration » (Steffen et al., 2015) where affluence, waste and restlessness reached unprecedented heights. If photography was amongst the most suitable auxiliaries to assess and assert physical change throughout our recent history, what happens to photography when the current speed, scale and complexity of physical fluxes start wobbling down? Also, if photography has been that cutting-edge auxiliary that closely tracked and contributed to carry technological development over in uncharted portions of the western world, once expansion has run its course, when restlessness dwindles, what kind of quintessential art photography will become?

In order to answer those questions, we can form the notion of peak photography. Inspired by the thermo-industrial track record best represented by The Limits to Growth’s World3 model outputs, peak photography is at first glance an apex in photographic production. More specifically, peak photography delineates a pivotal juncture where what we can afford to transport and transform in the world – through energy use – diminishes and becomes a limiting factor that impacts photographic production. In other words, peak photography addresses the relevance and affordances of photographic visibilities in a shrinking physical world. Additionally, by rephrasing Adams’ question[11], peak photography is an opportunity to align the production of photographic visibilities with what’s at the core of a decent ecological rationale, that is, sobriety and accountability in what we put out into the world.

Fig. 6: Left: John Carbutt, Westward, The Monarch Capital Makes Its Way, Union Pacific Rail Road, Excursion to the 100th Meridian, 1866. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.; Right: Mark Ruwedel, Western Pacific (Siding) #4, 2001. Courtesy Gallery Luisotti

Putting Mark Ruwedel’s pictures next to those of Robert Adams present an emblematic vision of what peak photography could mean. Not only do Adams’ and Ruwedel’s pictures point toward nineteenth century photographic tropes through evident quotation marks, but the clear references to that era of exploration suggests the project of westward expansion has run its due course. In Turning Back. A Photographic Journal of Re-exploration (2005), Robert Adams photographed the « unmitigated disaster » (Daniel Houghton, 2006) of clear-cutting in Clatsop County (Oregon) where the Lewis and Clark expedition turned back east from the Pacific in 1805. As he pointed out (Houghton, 2006), « we can’t go any further west ». Adams later observed how the timber industry is now deeply embedded in the funding of local schools through the state’s tax laws. « So it’s finished, Adams notes, the whole system is contrived to perpetuate until the last tree falls and nothing grows ». In other words, what Adams’ witnessed and photographed is a self-perpetuating gluttony that can only lead to decimation. « What have we traded for this great forest? What did we get in exchange? » he asks, quite critically. Needless to say, these remarks and questions strongly resonate with the idea that « the American space proves no defense » (Adams, 1983, 4) and they certainly make the « tragic progression » (Ibid.) Adams wrote about all the more tangible.    

In the same vein, Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire (2008) sheds light on the abandoned railroad infrastructure in large portions of the American West. Interestingly, in Ruwedel’s work photography and railroads, two nineteenth-century technological siblings, reunites again. In fact, Ruwedel’s pictures call upon two technologies that contributed to what Rebecca Solnit called the annihilation of time and space (cf. supra). Besides the reference to numerous accounts of nineteenth-century American iconography that bore the very title of Westward the Course of Empire (like John Carbutt’s Westward, the Monarch Capital Makes Its Way in 1866, fig. 6), the power of Ruwedel’s photographs lies in their capacity to point toward the historical and technological momentum that opened the American West. Drawing on survey photographs, as Ruwedel himself states (2008, n.p.), his pictures suggests that on each and every grade and trestle, in and out of each and every tunnel, matter, people and wealth were transported in unfathomable quantity across the vast expenses of the West. In a quite palpable sense, there used to lie the lines that shaped an entire region and nation to what it is now. Namely, there used to lie the lines of technological progress that got us here. And not unlike Adams’ Turning Back, the question of « what for? » strongly resonates in Ruwedel’s pictures.

In both cases, the pictures have a crepuscular tenor, as though photography – that was once used to celebrate the grandeur of the West – was now put in use to (1) acknowledge its own accountability in creating strong visual impetuses, (2) signal how “winning the West” has been achieved and quite literally derailed. Harkening back to the first section of this paper, we see how the nineteenth-century photographs both Adams and Ruwedel referred to were intertwined with such a transformative foray, as they partook in surveys whose «ultimate aim lay in determining the region’s potential for habitation and exploitation» (Davis, 2011, 74). Thus, what captures the two photographs in Fig. 6 can be seen as the process of completion of a gluttonous project initiated in the 1860s.


Quite different from Adams’ and Ruwedel’s contributions and their crepuscular tenor, a trend of photographic expression that we can call « all-form photography » emerged and now dominates contemporary discourses. As the name suggests, all-form photography’s one and only concern is the formal quality and questioning of its outputs. In most instances, the carrying-capacity of photography is hardly existent and in fact, deliberately reduced to an absolute minimum. All-form photography is thus a reincarnation of art for art’s sake and what Sekula once called a « free-floating metaphorical play » (Sekula, 1984, 79) and « an apparently limitless semiotic freedom » (Ibid., 77). There is of course something highly delightful both in all-form photographs themselves and in working, as a photographer, toward that mode of photographic expression. However, I wonder if the current inflation of all-form photography doesn’t directly contribute to the cognitive dissonance we suffer from at the moment, a dissonance between where we know we need to go and where we are going. As « inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy » (Sontag, 1977, 23) of the highest degree, all-form photographs aim way up in formal abstractions when the sobering urgencies of our time forces us to look way back down in crude material considerations. When, in addition, we are given pictures where what separates facts and fiction is « questioned » because photographs have always been prone to manipulation, and their subsequent truthfulness has always been under some sort of scrutiny; how are we supposed to secure our footing in this troubled time? Paradoxically, the researches questioning the part of facts and fictions in photography are trending at the very moment where we would need all the clarity to understand what got us here. Now that the scientific world multiplies the reports and the concepts – that of « planetary boundaries » (Rockström, Steffen et al., 2009) for example – in order to cap the prevalent citius, altius, fortius rationale, is there anything more at odds with our time than the « limitless semiotic freedom » of all-form photography? As a seemingly inexhaustible trend and mode of expression, all-form photography casts its net as wide as it gets, fulfilling what Sontag (1977, 111) called a « limitless production of notes on reality », an unbounded predatory endeavor that ultimately makes « everything homologous » (Ibid.). In this fictive sense of unity, however, we are well on the way to fulfilling the divorce of form and matter, a schism photography itself contributed to bring about. Never have both ends been more distant. In fact, that disconnect bears witness to itself in all-form photographs. This in turn makes them incredibly attractive as well as persuasive but also incredibly derivative by virtue of the distance they deviously keep with the sobering challenges of our time.


Far from being a gratuitous act or a harmless artistic pursuit, making a photograph is a solemn act of transformation that has long contributed to forging visibilities. Going against the grain of today’s free-floating realm of form, one difficult reckoning pertains to photography’s accountability in making us enter the geological picture and its growing set of physical constraints.

At a crossroads in both human and natural history, we lack visibilities that acknowledge the predatory commerce photography has had with nature and the non-human realm altogether. We lack, too, visibilities that (1) deal with the sequence of accelerations and transformations that got us here and (2) strongly respond to a contraction-stricken world we are destined to.

Approaching peak photography, let’s bet there will be a need of pictures that originate in a deep concern about the drying pool of physical affordances rather than pictures that fuel untethered speculation alone. While the latter promotes a somewhat childish delight, the former is tantamount to a mature stewardship. Knowing which of those two stances will serve us well in a time of growing environmental adversity is, forgive me for this pun, a child’s play.

Under these circumstances, photography can presumably be used viably if « it records accurately a mystery at the end of every terror–the survival of Form » (Adams, 1996, 16). Following Adams, an ecology of photography is, in essence, an ecology of form: it posits creating crude visibilities that deal with the broken texture of our environment and the subsequent enduring consequences for our species. It is, more importantly, about confronting a growing environmental pressure that will eventually undermine the gluttony photography has contributed to ignite, sustain and propagate.


[1] A sudden and sharp increase of a whole host of socio-economic and physical indicators that occurred after the 1950s.

[2] « A happy coincidence made photography rise to prominence at the time of the greatest extension of the railroad network » The author’s translation.

[3] Reclus observed: « From all the surrounding countrysides, geographical confines, corners of the world, staples flow whether by road or maritime transport to [the] enormous [urban] stomachs which absorb ever greater quantities » The author’s translation.

[4] According to Jancovici (2020), at the dawn of the twentieth century, fossil fuels–characterized by a much higher energy density–topped traditional biofuels to make up to more than 50% of the world consumption of energy.

[5] The entire set of picture O’Sullivan shot during the King Survey, also known as the Fortieth Parallel Survey are available online:

[6] Those artists who, perhaps more than any others, looked so carefully at the transformations of the landscape.

[7] Another account of the expedition photographs value is Mark Klett’s Rephotographic Survey Project that he undertook at the tail end of the 1970s.

[8]That’s, I n essence, what Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen argued in his seminal article « Economics and Entropy » published in 1972.

[9] As premise at the center of curator William Jenkins’ introduction to the seminal New Topographics exhibition of 1975.

[10] The two segments I am referring to are (1) 33:08-34:06 and (2) 18:26-18:44.

[11] What is the relevance of photography, then, to societies that have enacted a tragedy that has failed to live up to its earthly means and conditions?



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Il s’agit de montrer comment la photographie construit l’image de l’Anthropocène en la faisant d’abord rejoindre le récit alternatif du Phagocène. Loin d’être un acte gratuit, l’activité photographie n’a jamais cessé de se déployer au terme d’une séquence hautement technique et pour l’essentiel vorace. Dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle, elle s’est structurée autour le long d’une vaste infrastructure de transport et rapatria, par une nouvelle articulation du proche et du lointain, l’empreinte visuelle de lieux, de peuples et de paysages. À ce tournant de l’histoire humaine et de la Terre, une forte extension de la technique, de la consommation énergétique et de la raréfaction des ressources étaient déjà sujets de sérieuses inquiétudes. Notre regard se porte particulièrement sur l’Ouest Américain, une région du monde où s’achève, en toute hypothèse, le projet de conquête de l’ouest. En éclairant le rôle central que jouèrent les missions géologiques des années 1860 dans l’entrée dans le Phagocène, nous nous penchons sur la prolifération actuelle d’une photographie purement formelle pour envisager une autre écologie photographique. 



Anthropocène, écologie, énergie, phagocène, photographie.



This paper attempts to show how photography built the geological picture of the Anthropocene, by way of an alternate narrative called Phagocene, that is, an era of gluttony. Far from being a gratuitous act, photography has been part and parcel of a vast conveying infrastructure that retrieved the visual appearance of far-flung places, peoples and landscapes. In the late nineteenth century, technological expansion, energy consumption and resource depletion were subjects and concerns well thought through. A focus on the American West, that pivotal place where the project of westward expansion has likely run its course, will shed light on a lineage and a sequence of technological transformations expedition photography of the 1860s ignited. By looking at the current inflation of «all-form photography», a good index of today’s visual – and underlying material – gluttony, a new ecology of photography is outlined.



Anthropocene, ecology, energy, phagocene, photography.



Yogan Muller est photographe et chercheur. Ses travaux se concentrent sur l’Anthropocène et ses conséquences tant physiques qu’épistémologiques. Après avoir obtenu une Licence de Mathématiques pures à l’Université de Bordeaux en 2007, il s’est consacré à ses recherches photographiques puis entama un doctorat en Art et sciences de l’art à l’ENSAV La Cambre et à l’Université libre de Bruxelles en Belgique, qu’il reçut en novembre 2018. Cette année académique 2019-2020, il s’est installé à Los Angeles où il vit et travaille. Sous la tutelle de Rebeca Méndez designer, Docteure et Professeure à la UCLA, il a récemment pris part à l’épanouissement du Counterforce lab, une initiative de Professeure Méndez entièrement consacrée à la crise environnementale et à la réponse que des artistes, chercheurs et designers peuvent fournir. Ce semestre 2020, il est professeur invité à la faculté Design, Media, Arts de la UCLA. Ses articles sont parus dans Les Carnets du paysage (ENSP Versailles/Marseille) ainsi que dans Projets de paysage. En tant que photographe, il s’est intéressé à la transformation du paysage de la péninsule Reykjanes au sud-ouest de la capitale Islandaise entre 2012 et 2017. En 2019, il a été finaliste de la Bourse du talent (paysage) n˚80. Il a été stagiaire à l’agence Magnum Photos de Londres en 2009 et a participé à trois masterclasses dirigées par l’agence en 2008, 2009 et 2011.



Yogan Muller is a landscape scholar, photographer and educator whose work is attuned to the epistemological repercussions of the Anthropocene. After graduating from a BA Math in 2007 at the University of Bordeaux (France), he undertook a practice-based PhD in landscape photography and epistemology (ENSAV La Cambre, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium) that he received in November 2018. This 2019-2020 academic year, he moved to Los Angeles where he now works and lives. Under the tutelage of UCLA Professor and designer Rebeca Méndez, he partook in the foundational projects of the Counterforce lab, a research initiative led by Professor Méndez and entirely devoted to the ecological crisis. He currently is a visiting lecturer at UCLA (department of Design Media Arts). His papers were published in Les Carnets du paysage (ENSP Versailles/Marseille, France) and Projets de paysage. As a landscape photographer, he worked in Iceland between 2012 and 2017 and photographed the transformation of the Reykjanes peninsula, southwest of the capital Reykjavík. He was a finalist of La Bourse du Talent no. 80 (2019). He interned Magnum Photos in London in 2009 and was selected for three masterclasses (in 2008, 2009 and 2011) led by the cooperative.


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