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HomeContentsThemes > Landscape photography and natural catastrophes

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Here I'll include some examples of natural disasters and the photographers who have covered them.
1.   USA, California, San Francisco earthquake
The San Francisco earthquake struck on April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m. and it had the disadvantage of affecting a major population center - but the advantage for photographer that so many photographers were available to record the devastation of the earthquake and the fire that followed. The earthquake was a massive 8.25 on the Richter scale and had a duration of only 49 seconds. The fire that followed did far greater damage destroying about 28,000 buildings. In this catastrophe 315 people were killed outright with a 352 missing. 6 people were shot for criminal offences during the tragedy and one more was shot by mistake. The whole event left 225,000 homeless.
San Francisco Earthquake - 1906
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Arnold Genthe
San Francisco, California earthquake 
1906, Apr 18
   
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The photographers who covered the earthquake and fire included:
 
  • Arnold Genthe who included a description of the fire in his 1936 autobiography 'As I Remember'.
  • Edward A. "Doc" Rogers - 'San Francisco Morning Call'
  • George Parmentier, Harry Coleman - both of the 'San Francisco Examiner'
  • George Haley - 'San Francisco Chronicle'
The buildings of the key newspapers were all destroyed in the fire but the photographers and journalists used the presses of the 'Oakland Tribune' to create a four-page combined issue.  
  
2.   USA, Washington, Mount St. Helens eruption
The proximity to our own lives, geographical region and availability of photographers to cover events means that we get a twisted view of catastrophes. When in May 1980 Mount St. Helens (Washington State, USA) a 5:1 magnitude earthquake shook the mountain it triggered an eruption in which fifty-seven people were killed or are still missing - a terrifying loss and the event was well covered by the press and scientists.
Natural catastrophes and the landscape
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Austin Post
Volcanic eruption at Mount St. Helens, WA, USA 
1980, 18 May
   
The development of photography meant that catastrophic events could be given an immediacy that was difficult with the written world and illustrations, such as engravings and woodcuts, could rarely do justice to the magnitude of the events as they unfolded. When Giorgio Sommer (1811-1872) photographed the 1872 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius an accurate visual record was taken. A devastating natural disaster such as the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was photographed by Arnold Genthe (1869-1942) and the fire that followed was described in his autobiography 'As I Remember' (1936). The aftermath of 1908 Messina earthquake in Italy which killed between 70-100,000 was well recorded with a great many postcards distributed.
 
Each event is now recorded by journalists and scientists from the 1980 eruption at Mount St. Helens to the terrifying tsunami (26 Dec 2004) that devastated South East Asia with the loss of over 220,000 lives.
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The landscape photographer Frank Gohlke, known for his studies of grain elevators, went the year after to photograph the site and then returned on a regular basis over the next nine years to see how the land recovered.
Natural disasters
 
Frank Gohlke (Mount St Helens - May 1980)
Frank Gohlke: Mount St. Helens 
  
Frank Gohlke (Photographer); & Peter Galassi (Essay)
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Only five years later at Nevado del Ruiz (Columbia) an eruption claimed the lives of 25,000 people, most of them caught in a massive mudflow that poured down the stricken mountain. Photographs of the event exist but they are not given the same prominence in photographic history.  
  
3.   Earthquakes
1976 Tangshan earthquake in China, a magnitude 8 event whose toll of lives varies between the official 255,000, and an estimated 655,000. This event truly began the modern era of intense seismic hazard monitoring in China and the West.
 
An earthquake was responsible for the deadliest landslide this century, which caused 40,000-50,000 deaths in western Iran on June 20, 1990. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake at Mount Huascaran, Peru, on May 21, 1970, triggered a rock and snow avalanche that buried the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca, killing perhaps as many as 20,000 people.  
  
4.   Fires
  • 1842: Ruins of Hamburg Fire (1842 46 Daguerrotypes of the destruction by Hermann Biow (1804-1850)
  • Oswego Mills, New York - granary fire of 5 July 1853 George N. Barnard (1819-1902)
 
  
5.   Floods
 
  
6.   Typhoons
A Chinese photographer, Afong, who was active in the 1860s-1880s in Hong Kong, took an album of albumen silver prints of the 22 September 1874 typhoon that struck Hong Kong harbor sinking the steamers moored there.  
  
7.   Hurricanes
Hurricane - 1992, the most destructive hurricane ever to hit the U.S. (Andrew) landed twice, first in Florida, then in Louisiana. Although the death toll was 'only' 26, the property damage added up to a staggering $25 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.
Hurricane Katrina
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Unidentified photographer/creator
Grand Isle, La., two days after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast. 
2005, 31 August
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Unidentified photographer/creator
Grand Isle, La., two days after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast. [Enlarged section] 
2005, 31 August
  
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005 at approximately 7:10 a.m. EDT and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started aerial photography flights over the affected region the following day. On this photograph taken of Grand Isle taken on 31 Aug 2005 a view of the area is seen but when a section of the image is enlarged the HELP messages laid out on the ground are clearly visible.
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8.   Natural disasters provoked by man
In the above examples the catastrophes were meteorological or geological processes in which the changes to the landscape are an inevitable part of a world in constant change and evolution. There are however the catastrophes that are the result of human actions that have altered the 'natural' state of the land and as such encouraged or accelerated changes that have led to problems.
  • The vast wheat and cotton fields of the American Midwest in the 1930's led to soils with little ability to hold together in times of drought or rain. The dust storms that resulted made agriculture next to impossible and this forced loan foreclosures and desertion of an inhospitable land. The 'FSA' (Farm Securities Administration) photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange highlight the human costs of an over exploited landscape.
  • The Aral Sea - once the fourth largest body of freshwater in the world the Aral Sea straddles the border between Russia and Uzbekisthan. The feeder rivers of the Aral Sea were increasingly used for the irrigation of rice and cotton fields through the 1960's and the flow declined rapidly leading to increasing salination. Aerial photographs by Yann Arthus-Bertrand reveal the scale of the problem but not the solution.
It may be that in the future global warming will cound as one of these that was partly avoidable but governments did little.
 
  
 
  
 
  
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