Historic Environmentalism

Mary McDonnell is a sophomore majoring in Conservation and Resource Studies. 

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By being a part of the College of Natural Resources, the majority of my classes entail learning dark details of the world’s declining environmental state. Statistics, graphs, and charts visually aide my understanding of the human population’s deep and wide footprint. Often, it is easy to think of environmentalism as a relatively new concept, born out of the 70’s with the Green Revolution and bell-bottomed jeans. This image captured by Joseph Grinnell in 1915, challenges the misconception that the wellness of the environment is a new concern.

In the description of the photo, Grinnell writes, “Results of dredging operations. Fertile pasture at right, rubble at [left]”. Dredging is a type of mining that scoops out the bottom of rivers, harbors or lakes with a dredge. Today, dredging is implemented to clear out the build up of sediment in rivers. Historically, it was a method practiced widely in California during the Gold Rush to retrieve fine gold from sediment. Grinnell photographed the town of Snelling, which was a major dredge field at the time near the Merced River.

It is possible that Grinnell was simply making an observation of his surroundings without the thought of environmental impact of dredging at the forefront of his mind. However, the way he frames the photograph, juxtaposing the piling rubble and the fertile pasture, tempts one to think that Grinnell was discontent with the encroaching, out of context, rubble that swallowed up part of the pastureland.

This image is a great example of how to frame the consequences of human action on the environment, in a way that captures both the negative impacts, the rubble, and the potential for conservation and renewal, the fertile pasture.

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A view from Little Onion Valley

Written by Emily Domanico, fourth year majoring in History of Art and minoring in Chemistry.

Sorting through photos in the MVZ archive, Charles David Holliger’s photograph of the landscape of Little Onion Valley stood out for the rhythms of the mountains, the depth of the pictorial field, and his framing of the valley. Taken around 8am on a sunny June morning, Holliger captures a crisp landscape. A gathering of trees cascades down a near sloping mountain, emptying out onto the valley floor where sparse trees give way to a gathering of low-lying vegetation. Behind this mountain sits another ridge, lightened by white snow catching the morning sun. Then, from these snow crested peaks, my eye falls down to a pass that empties out onto the valley floor, meeting the population of trees. Holliger frames the valley as a meeting point, a joint between these ridges of higher elevation. Through the framing of the photograph, Holliger weaves the light values of the snow dusted peaks with the darker value of the foliage to create a dynamic composition that coalesces at the valley floor. For Holliger, on this morning of a collection trip that likely ventured out into those peaks away from camp, the valley floor probably felt like a meeting point.

Onion Valley, located on the desert side of Inyo National Forest, is now a campground for all to stay at as part of the Inyo National Forest. It serves as a resting point for hikers to adventure into the Kearsarge Pass, a journey that Holliger made on his collection trip back in the summer of 1912.


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A sunny Berkeley morning in 1910


View of UC Berkeley Campus, ca. 1910

View of UC Berkeley Campus, ca. 1910

This pastoral, picturesque scene of a sun-dappled oak grove is just one image of the UC Berkeley Campus to be found in the MVZ photographic archives. This particular view was taken from the north entrance at the old museum site by Harry Schelwald Swarth around 1910. Swarth (1878-1935) was a distinguished ornithologist who worked at Berkeley from 1908-1927 before hopping across the Bay to work at the California Academy of Sciences.

There are several images taken by Swarth of the grounds and storage rooms of the museum. This image (MVZ 339) is particularly evocative, with its careful attention to middle ground, recession into the backgrounded hills, and incursion of the oak branch in the right axis of the frame. The quality of the light and the westward angle of the shadows suggest that this photograph was taken in the first part of the day in bright sunlight. One can imagine strolling around the campus on a lovely Berkeley Sping-time morning in 1910, with the sun rising in the east over the newly completed Sather Gate.

–Tulasi Johnson is a senior in the History of Art Department at UC Berkeley, specializing in the Long 19th Century.

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Plains, Trains, and Historic Photo Collections

Mary McDonnell is a sophomore majoring in Conservation and Resource Studies.


Growing up in Sacramento, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for trains. That is why this photograph of a railroad stretching the small Plumas county town of Vinton, stood out to me. Taken in 1910 by collector Walter P. Taylor, this image of Vinton is hauntingly beautiful, capturing the town’s isolation and small size, the dry shrubs that seem to go on as far as the railroad, and the expansive hilly landscape in the background.

Incredibly enough, looking up satellite images of Vinton, CA on Google Maps shows a town that doesn’t look much different from the one in the photo from 1910. Although the railroad no longer runs through the town, a long stretch of paved road has taken its place. Otherwise, little has changed about the buildings and almost nothing has been developed on the far-reaching grass and shrub lands, leaving the view of the hills unobstructed.

This photo is unlike many of the others I have handled so far. Mostly, I pick through different images of ecosystems and animals; forests, birds, lakes, deserts, bears, etc – typical field documentations. For some reason, Taylor found this site of a small town and railway worthy of belonging to his photo collection. I doubt he foresaw that someone like me, whose idea of fun is an afternoon at the Sacramento Railroad Museum and whose text message ringtone is the sound of a train whistle, would see this image and get excited by the window into California history that it opens. Train enthusiasts in mind or not, Taylor saw significance in the town of Vinton for documenting, and I am happy he did. 


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Sublime Mountain Vista

Tulasi Johnson is a senior in the History of Art department at UC Berkeley.

Hasselborg Lake, Admiralty Inlet, Alaska by Annie Alexander 1907 silver gelatin print

Hasselborg Lake, Admiralty Inlet, Alaska
by Annie Alexander
1907 silver gelatin print

The formal qualities of this photograph taken by Annie Alexander, founder of both the UC Museum of Paleontology and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, recalls the picturesque, sublime qualities of both the painted landscape as well as early Western photography by the likes of Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins. Taken on an arduous 1907 field expedition to Alaska (which Alexander headed), the composition foregrounds the still, serene mountain lake in the foreground, which reflects and doubles the mountain vista. The two dark middleground hills frame the recession into space provided by the mountain range in the background. It was a treat to stumble across this image in the vast MVZ photo archives during a conservation rehousing project at UC Berkeley. Finding such a photo embedded in its original context, as a corollary to scientific field notes, recalls the fact that prior to the 1970’s, O’Sullivan and Russell’s photos were overlooked as well. It was not until they were retroactively inserted into the cannon by mid-century art historians like Weston Naef and John Szarkowski, and further analyzed by critics such as Alan Sekula and Rosalind Kraus, that they began to be seen as art, and not as mere documentary evidence. This photograph points to the exciting potential of the archive to locate early Western landscape photography produced by women, a relative rarity!

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From the Archives: Following the bird song

Written by Emily Domanico, fourth year majoring in History of Art and minoring in Chemistry.

Following bird songs, naturalist Joseph Grinnell photographed this nest of a black-chinned sparrow while on a collection trip in the San Jacinto Mountains back in May 1908.

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One hundred years later, the Natural History Museum of San Diego is conducting a resurvey project of the San Jacinto region hoping to compare what Grinnell saw (and heard) then with what is there today. Grinnell’s account of the bird songs and this field trip can be found in the digitized scans of field notes taken that day can be found online in the museum’s EcoReader. Also, check out audubon.org for a recording of the bird song that brought Grinnell to the nest.

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Joseph Grinnell Lecture Series

Today, Professor Jim McGuire gave the introductory lecture to IB104. Over 75 years ago, Joseph Grinnell was teaching Zoology 113, the predecessor to IB104. The MVZ Archives has a rich collection surrounding this storied course including Joseph Grinnell’s lecture series for Zoology 113. This series is comprised of an entire year’s worth of lectures. And these are no ordinary lecture notes. They are sprinkled with Grinnell’s ideas on various concepts, detailed listings of maps, specimens and photos used during lectures, lab assignments, and announcements to give. Like all things in Archives, it’s fascinating to observe what has changed, and more interestingly, what hasn’t. I hope you enjoy Grinnell’s Introductory Lecture notes from January 18, 1938 and his announcement regarding Saturday field trips.

Introduction to Zool 113

Introduction to Zool 113

Announcement for Saturday field trips


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