‘Malign Living Structures’: Functions of the Survey Image in “Soil Erosion – A National Menace” (1934)

This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies

Photograph of erosion started from an old roadbed, Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri. June 1937. (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration).

The land survey photograph, as represented by the first two pictures here, is a category of image that circulated widely in scientific journals and official publications during the 1930s. Severe droughts and dust storms between 1934 and 1936 culminated in what has been described as the worst drought in American history and the designation of 1,194 counties as emergency drought areas by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. [i]

Pictures were included, for example, in the article, ‘Soil Erosion – A National Menace’ (1934), prepared by Hugh Hammond Bennett as chief of the Soil Erosion Service in the United States Department of the Interior and published in The Scientific Monthly. [ii] These were campaigning photographs, included for their ability to function as warnings—to shock audiences into recognising the scale of land degradation in a rural America facing sharp declines in agricultural yields, vast desolate areas, and contingent mass migrations.

Example of extreme erosion in an area of Shawnee National Forest about 5 miles north of Metropolis, Illinois. 31 May 1938 (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration).

 Unlike photographs produced for the grand geological surveys of the late nineteenth century, the survey photos of the thirties were intended to be instructional, and federal agencies fed what they had seen in the field to ‘every available channel’ of an increasingly developed national media. [iii]  The visual material produced in surveys functioned first as scientific data but was then dramatised and adapted for purposes of advocacy, with selective sections of geography being shared as emblems of the crisis.

The campaigning literature of the thirties pathologised the physical features of soil erosion, those reaching fingers and stranded islands of sediment. Gullies were likened to viruses because of their ability to spread rapidly across agricultural land despite their visibly innocuous or barely legible origins. An image of a gully is captioned in “Soil Erosion – A National Menace” as originating in a high-lying field before spreading over an area of adjacent virgin forest. [v] The movement of the land, this process of travel, took place unseen and uncaptured by the lens of the surveyor’s camera. Only the results—the resulting view—could be made visible. These views, therefore, were reconstructed and juxtaposed with earlier photographs to show transformations in the landscape, compressing the timelines of degradation to emphasise what the end point might be if gullies were not ‘controlled’ and suppressed. [vi]

Landforms were awarded agency in the texts of soil campaigners, whose language started to conceptualise the imagined animate qualities of erosion features. Russell Lord, the agricultural journalist and literary vanguard of the environmental movement who Bennett asked in 1935 to prepare a wide-ranging report on erosion, portrayed the earth as ‘one body and alive,’ with the soil adopting the guise of ‘her skin, her legs, her entrails, and her womb.’ Lord disturbingly pictured the gullies themselves as ‘malign living structures, creeping, feeding on soil, on the habitations of the living, on the bodies of the dead.’ [vii] Paul Sears, the plant ecologist and author of Deserts on the March (1935), used a similar point of reference, outlining how they:

… grow by which they feed upon. As a gully cuts back, tributary gullies are cut and the damage spreads like a ringworm, in a circle. The measure of damage is not the distance cut back by the main gully, but the increasing area involved in the whole system. The more it eats the more it wants. The injury then increases, not by addition, but by multiplication—a truly frightful thing to contemplate. [viii]

Of course, the survey photograph could only provide an illusion of control over these creatures, and the still image could only go so far in capturing their life cycles—their growth and potential elimination or management. Photography, however, was now understood to be an effective instrument in popularising contemporary problems and played an increasingly dominant role in environmental education. Along with its cousin, the motion picture, photography could push the boundaries of environmental perception. V. C. Arnspiger, the Director of Research at Erpi Picture Consultants, recognised this when asserting that images might best be employed when ‘movements in nature are too slow or too rapid, too small [or great], or too far distant to be perceived by the unaided human sense.’ [ix]

Senators see damage done by soil erosion – Hugh H. Bennett describing features on an aerial photograph to members of the Senate Unemployment and Relief Committee. Washington, 9 March, 1938 (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration).

In achieving these aims, pictures relied on accompanying texts to provide both factual context and the vivid literary framing of the type used by Lord and Sears. Sears himself praised government publicity, of which Bennett’s article was a product, for its ‘combination of rare scientific sense and superb showmanship’ in communicating the erosion problem, whilst personally maintaining that science only had the ‘power to illuminate, but not to solve, the deeper problems of mankind.’ [x]

These pictures inevitably raise questions about current approaches to communicating environmental crises and their changing landscapes. When viewed as a group, they show a preoccupation with capturing the formal and aesthetic qualities of the damaged, remote, and mainly agricultural landscape. This fascination with form, however, need not preclude images from acting as declamatory points of punctuation in reproduction, as 1930s record photography took on both emotive and technical functions in popular and scientific publications.


[i] Lowitt, Richard, The New Deal and the West, 2nd ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 37.

[ii] Bennett, Hugh Hammond, “Soil Erosion – A National Menace”, The Scientific Monthly 39, No. 5 (November 1934), https://www.jstor.org/stable/15812.

[iii] Brink, Wellington, Big Hugh: The Father of Soil Conservation (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 60.

[iv] Bennett cited in Sutter, Paul S., Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 86; Sears, Paul, Deserts on the March (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935), 138-139.

[v] Bennett, “Soil Erosion – A National Menace”, 385.

[vi] ibid.

[vii] Lord, Russell, To Hold This Soil (Washington: USDA, 1938), 2, 49.

[viii] Sears, Deserts on the March, 138-139.

[ix] Arnspiger, V. C., “The Educational Talking Picture”, Journal of Educational Sociology 10, No. 3 (November 1936), 144.

[x] Sears, Deserts on the March, 219

About Samuel Hawksford-White

Samuel Hawksford White is a postgraduate researcher at the Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull. Previously, he studied planning at Oxford Brookes University and architectural history at the University of Cambridge, and recently participated in an international conference on earthquake reconstruction in the Marche, Italy (Living with Earthquakes, UNIVPM). His interdisciplinary research has been focused on the built environment, landscape, and the history of photography, particularly in the twentieth-century United States. His current project on flooding and drought in New Deal photography and nonfiction film is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
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