Using digital techniques to broaden participatory approaches in environmental history: the Snow Scenes Exhibition
By Alexander Hall – Coventry University – email@example.com
Joseph Hardman had a way of capturing a disappearing way of life. The photographer documented changing landscapes, local events, personalities and regional traditions from the early 1930s to the 1960s. Based in Cumbria in the North-West of England, Hardman covered up to 200 miles a week, usually by taxi, to document a rural way of life that was undergoing significant change. Much like the work of famous US landscape photographers and photojournalists, such as Ansell Adams and Dorothea Lange1, Hardman’s photographs present a great resource for environmental historians in their attempts to narrate cultural and landscape histories that have often left few textual records.
Last year, whilst working as a research assistant in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, I came across Hardman’s recently digitised collection, containing over 4,500 wonderful photographs depicting rural life and landscapes in the UK. I came across the photographs whilst doing research for an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project called Snow Scenes, which was attempting to expand regional understandings of snow and severe winters in the UK by collecting personal weather memories and connecting them with archival research on past extreme winters. As the project’s case-study region was in Cumbria, Hardman’s adopted home and the subject of the vast majority of his work, I immediately knew this vast collection could play an important role in our research. I painstakingly began to go through the images, identifying each one relating to snow, ice, or winter conditions. Fortunately for the project, Hardman’s interest in the seasons and the agricultural calendar meant that I counted over 500 images that depicted winter conditions in our case study region.
The images would be a valuable secondary resource for the project, helping us to bridge the gap between the personal memories we were collecting and documentary records. However, I was also keen to use the images as part of the participatory methodology we were developing, somehow using these striking visual aids to encourage communities to participate and submit their memories. The methodology we were developing sought to engage a broad cross-section of the case study community by collecting their memories of periods of extreme cold using a combination of traditional methods, such as focus groups, and digital technologies, such as social media. Adopting a multi-faceted approach for participation, the design of the project was guided by both the medium and the content of the submissions we received. The memories, submissions, and artefacts collected were then to be explored and analysed in the context of historical and archival records from the area, including regional newspaper archives, county and school records, local oral history collections, and meteorological records. This methodology, which relied on an integrated model of public engagement, allowed participants to become more than passive informants to our research, creating a meaningful dialogue within local communities.2
Key to this approach being successful was a need for us to be flexible as the project developed and as initial archival and participant sources were gathered and analysed. So, still pondering how best the project could utilise this newfound resource, I began reading up on Hardman, his collection, and the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, where his archive is held.
Joseph Hardman (1893-1972) moved to Kendal, Cumbria in 1911 from the metropolis of Manchester, and it was here he developed an amateur interest in photography. Encouraged by the sale of a few of his photographs to local newspapers, in the early 1930s Hardman made the leap becoming a professional freelance photographer and set about documenting a rural way of life that was undergoing significant change. His photographs won many awards and featured in local and national newspapers and magazines. Hardman’s vast collection shows he had a deep understanding of the landscape of the region. His photographs often feature a lone figure – a shepherd, a walker, a milk maid – engulfed in the grand terrain of the Lake District and surrounding regions.
After his death in 1972, Hardman’s family donated his vast collection of glass plate negatives to the museum, who in recent years have worked hard to digitise them, making the images available in the public domain via their online photo library. When the collection was donated to the museum, unfortunately it was not accompanied by Hardman’s notes, so details such as the date, subject and location of most images were unknown. The museum has attempted to add as much meta-data to the archive collection as possible, asking local community members, trawling maps, and comparing Hardman’s photographs against other archival images they hold. It dawned on me that Snow Scenes may be able to help the museum gather more information about the photographs and promote the collection more generally, whilst also using Hardman’s images to generate discussion amongst our project participants.
So, upon my next trip to the region, visiting archives and recruiting participants in shops, pubs, community centres and libraries, I went armed with print-outs of six Hardman photographs depicting winter scenes, which I suspected were all on, or close to, Lake Windermere. Using my quest to locate where the shots were taken as an opening gambit, I asked those I encountered if they remembered the lake ever freezing, and about their memories of winter in the region, leaving them with a postcard, via which they could submit their memories to the project.
With the help of locals that I spoke to, keen use of my trusted Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure map (1:25,000 scale), and Google maps on my smartphone, I managed not only to find five of the depicted locations, but to pinpoint the exact spot where Joseph Hardman had taken the photographs from over fifty years earlier. Upon returning home and comparing the changes, or sometimes lack of changes, between Hardman’s images and mine, and inspired by websites such as History Pins and WhatWasThere, I decided to experiment using graphics editing software to merge and blend the originals with my new digital photographs of the locations.3 I hoped to create something that would not only look visually interesting and stimulate conversation, but may also help participants see locations they know well today in a new light, connecting their local past and previous severe winters to today.
Enthused by my initial results, but still unsure how these new digitally altered images may be any more use for our research than Hardman’s originals, I showed the images to the head of the Hardman digitisation project. The staff at the museum liked the composite images so much that they asked me to produce 14 more to be exhibited in their coffee house exhibition space. Using more originals from Hardman’s collection and a few other famous photographs held by the museum, taken by the nineteenth-century photographer Henry Hebert, I continued to geo-locate further images, photograph them, and blend the old and the new together. In doing so, I began experimenting with some of the many archival photographs that contained people. Many of Hardman’s photographs feature a single figure or groups of people surrounded by breathtaking Lakeland views. These shots, often depicting people at work or play, add a haunting element to the composite images I created. The figures in the images, such as those playing ice hockey below, emphasise the change that has occurred in the region over the last century, with their clothing, demeanour and activities, at odds with the world we are familiar with today.
Whilst the exhibition, which ran from January to the end of March 2014, gave the museum the chance to promote the Hardman collection, it also allowed us to further promote our project by placing information and participatory postcards on all the tables in the coffee house. We also subsequently used the composite images to generate discussion at community events and workshops held as part of the project. Through the serendipitous creation and display of these digital images we reached an even wider set of potential participants and greatly increased the number of submissions we received to the project. Further, the process of creating the images and then discussing them with local communities allowed us to explore the role images play in forming people’s memories of extreme weather; shown in a recent study to be of importance to how people engage with the issue of anthropomorphic climate change.4
During the process of creating the merged images I was struck by the fascinating landscape changes often revealed. In an exact reversal of my expectations, it was the buildings, walls, fences, and other directly created human artefacts in the shots that had barely altered. Instead, it was the non-built environment that had changed the most. Obviously things had grown, but more than this, hedges had disappeared, field uses had changed, and large plantations had come and gone.For me the changes highlighted by these composite images reflected wider changes in Cumbrian life and some of the tensions faced by communities in the region. The images made me question the role of national parks in conserving an environment, and ponder how physical changes in land-use have been connected to changing economic and social dimensions of communities.
A full slide show of the images can be found on Snow Scenes Flickr page. Also, I strongly encourage readers to take a look at the Hardman Photo Library and if you recognise any locations or people in the images, or think you can date any of them, please do get in touch with James Arnold at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry. The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under project code AH/L50354X/.I created the photographs as a way to explore changes to the Cumbrian landscape, bring historical records to life, and to generate discussion amongst Cumbrians about their memories of snow and winters past in the region. Through this short essay I hope that the photographs have caused a few of you to consider in more detail how imagery, new digital techniques, and meaningful public engagement can greatly enrich environmental history research. As David Biggs asserted in March’s Environmental Field Notes essay, “by detecting new patterns in studies of historic imagery, we can greatly enhance the diversity of storylines, perhaps even avoiding tendencies to fall into declensionist or techno-positivist trajectories.” For Snow Scenes, attempting to collect people’s memories of climate extremes that were often declensionist, techno-positivist or, most commonly, simply nostalgic, the digitally altered images gave us a way of pushing participants to consider the role of changing landscapes, technologies and social conditions when comparing extreme winters over the past seventy years or so.
1. For just two of many examples of environmental histories that feature the work of these specific US photographers see Mark Stoll, “Milton in Yosemite: Paradise Lost and the National Parks Idea,” Environmental History 13 (2008): 237-74 and Kenneth M. Sylvester and Eric S. A. Rupley, “Revising the Dust Bowl: High Above the Kansas Grasslands,” Environmental History 17 (2012): 603–633.
3. I used the open source vector graphics editor Inkscape, available free online. Other popular raster editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop or GIMPwould have been equally, if not more, capable of achieving the same results.
4. Brigitte Nerlich and Rusi Jaspal, “Images of Extreme Weather: Symbolising Human Responses to Climate Change,” Science as Culture (2013): 1-24.