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[Detail] Pinus scopulorum Reproduction, Jemez Springs, New Mexico

The images in American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936 complement the study of the development of the industrial United States from 1876 to 1915 and the emergence of modern America from 1890 to 1930. Users of the collection will learn about turn-of-the-century life, including the new discipline of ecology, increasing industrialization, and large-scale agriculture. In particular, one can discover the impacts of industrial society on the environment. The collection also depicts rural life and the settlement of the West and the history of Native Americans and women and education. Finally, the collection also reflects the development of the National Park system and the advent of leisure time.

A New Discipline: Ecology

Hackberry Pocket

A Hackberry Pocket, Thomas County, Nebraska.

The photographs in this collection were created by members of the Department of Botany at the University of Chicago from the 1890s to the 1930s. In 1897, Henry C. Cowles joined the department's faculty and brought its attention to the study of ecology. A word first used in 1886, "ecology" meant for Cowles that the composition of plant life in any setting must be understood as the result of constant change in relations within plant communities and among communities and their environs. Cowles thought that plants should not be studied in a vacuum, but as part of a system.


Hackberry, Indiana.

Nearly all of the pictures in this collection can be viewed as reflecting the University of Chicago botanists' study and understanding of ecology. Browse the Subject Index for an idea of the breadth of this collection and its exploration of ecology. Sample images indexed under some of these subject headings, including Ecological succession and Ecology-Research, for a sense of the meaning of ecology and how it was practiced.

  • Overall, how do these photographs inform our knowledge of ecology, as opposed to botany alone?
  • In what ways do these images reflect the definition of "ecology" as a system or community?
  • What do these images indicate about how the University of Chicago botanists defined an ecological system? What kinds of systems or communities do you find documented in these photographs?
  • An essay, "Henry C. Cowles and Ecological Succession", from the collection's Special Presentation, describes some of Cowles's ecological theories and interests. How are these reflected in the collection's images? Do the images corroborate Cowles's theories?
  • What other approaches to botany are reflected in the collection?
  • If you were a botanist, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of using photographs of plants in their natural settings and and using photographs of plants in isolation?