Ecologies of the Western Camera: Collective Photography and Wishful Environmentalism, California c. 1900

Speaker: Dr Carolin Görgen

For the past century, Californian photographers have existed in our imaginations as environmentally aware practitioners whose majestic depictions of the western landscape have helped preserve and protect the state’s fragile ecosystem. Exploring the practices of the largest camera club in the early twentieth-century U.S. – the San Francisco-based California Camera Club – this talk questions the common portrayal of western photographers as solitary artist-explorers in a seemingly favorable climate. It draws attention to the ecological repercussions of photographic practice in California, c. 1900, by tracing the tensions between aesthetically pleasing landscape imagery and its material afterlife. Through a variety of photographic objects and manuscripts, this talk will examine how the club’s seemingly preservationist agenda was interwoven with imperialist expansion, Indigenous dispossession, and often-violent transformation of the land. In dialogue with recent ecocriticial research, this talk will question the photographers’ aesthetic approach to the Western landscape and longstanding imaginations of Californian photography as inherently environmentalist.

Carolin Görgen is Associate Professor of American Studies at Sorbonne Université. A historian of photography and the American West, she obtained her PhD from the University Paris-Diderot and the École du Louvre in 2018. Her dissertation on the California Camera Club received the the research prize of the German Photographic Society and Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation. Most recently, she contributed the exhibition catalog Among the Ruins: Arnold Genthe’s Photographs of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Firestorm (2021) of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums. Her research has been supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Huntington Library, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the Amon Carter Museum. She currently serves on the editorial board of the journal Photographica.

Organised by Dr Matthew Holman (The Courtauld, Centre for American Art) 

The Centre for American Art is supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art

5:30pm, 15 Mar 2023

Wednesday 15th March 2023, 5.30pm - 6.30pm GMT

Free, booking essential

Online via Zoom

Booking will close 30 minutes before the event start time.

Details on how to join the online event will be sent out 48 hours before and on the day of the event. If you do not receive this information, please contact


Black and white stereographic image showing a group of predominantly women in skirts, blouses and hats, stood between a large tree with only the trunk visible and several early cameras.
R.Y. Young, The Gen. Sherman and its visitors, Mariposa Grove of big trees, Cal., 1902, detail from a stereograph by the American Stereoscopic Company. Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.
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