Instrumental records for a wide range of natural phenomena often extend back only several decades, and rarely more than a full century. But we need longer baselines to more fully understand long-term geological and ecological changes, and to reconstruct the historical landscapes of earlier eras. As ecologist Emily W.B. Russell declared in her 1997 People and the Land through Time: Linking Ecology and History, “When I started studying ecology, I hoped to be able to explain the composition of plant communities by understanding the interactions of species’ physiology and population dynamics with microenvironments. Reading and research, however, have convinced me that while these interactions are important for determining what species can grow somewhere, the history of a site and region plays a major role in determining what species actually do grow there. This idea is not new, even within the discipline of ecology, but until recently ecologists have downplayed it in their efforts to general laws that govern species distributions, ecosystem properties, and other ecological processes, regardless of time or space.”
How can historical photographs contribute to such studies? Historians, photographers, and archivists have begun to collaborate with environmental scientists to bring to light historical photograph collections that reveal landscape change over time. For instance, a number of historians and documentary photographers have launched re-photography surveys that retraced the paths of late nineteenth century explorers and their attendant photographers, revealing significant alternations on various temporal and spatial scales. Aerial photographic surveys by state governments in the early twentieth century (although not yet fully digitized) provide a wealth of information about land use and regional practices. Standardized geotagging of digitized photographs by archives and other repositories now makes it increasingly easy to locate a wide variety of images of a region under study. Interdisciplinary efforts to reconstruct historical landscapes offer tremendous potential—and while not new, remain under-utilized.