(ESSAY) Whole Earthporn Catalog, by Austin Miles
Austin Miles dives into the photography practice of Earthporn, which is predominantly found online: understood as a subgenre of landscape photography, Earthporn suggests a different force at play in the ongoing reconstitution of the relationship between “humans" and “nature” in the face of ecological catastrophe
Sunrise over the Twin Islands seen from Lanikai Beach, Hawaii. Some badlands in New Mexico (“It looks like Farmington or Bisti I’m guessing”). “Looks like another planet. Wild!” Zion National Park with a gaudy night sky above it. Scrolling through r/EarthPorn (“Amazing images of light and landscape”) at 1:08 EST on Friday April 30th, a jaunt around the U.S. Reddit’s infinite scroll soon takes me farther afield, to Canada, Costa Rica, Australia, etc.
The infinite scroll promises a quasi-infinite number of beautiful landscape photos—Niagara; sunset at El Nido, Palawan; Great Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone. The infinite scroll also cheapens each landscape, no matter how sublime. Each landscape in the infinite scroll of landscapes is as discardable as a used napkin, or a garbage meme.
Wheeling through r/EarthPorn’s infinite scroll is deadening. The experience at first is pleasurable—a poster on r/nofap (of all places) compares it to the “addictive hit” of pmo (porn, masturbation, orgasm); later, it becomes monotonous, even a chore, and a stupefied sensation settles in.
According to a comment which the r/EarthPorn “about” section linked, the porn in Earthporn is taken from Anthony Bourdain’s neologism “foodporn,” which he used to describe the photographic techniques that many cooking shows use to entice their audience. According to this comment, these techniques were pioneered in the porn industry; applied to nature, this marks a far cry from the original transcendence of landscape as a genre.
In ‘The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’, William Cronon writes: '[the] sense of wilderness as a landscape where the supernatural lay just beneath the surface was expressed in the doctrine of the sublime…sublime landscapes were those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.' Far from being pleasurable places, they were considered terrifying. Cronon decries the sublime as 'a word whose modern usage has been so watered down by commercial hype and tourist advertising that it retains only a dim echo of its former power.' He contends this diluting began in the second half of the 19th century. 'As more and more tourists sought out the wilderness as a spectacle to be looked at and enjoyed for its great beauty, the sublime in effect became domesticated.' Earthporn is yet another stage in this historical process, in which the wilderness is not just domesticated but quasi-masturbatory.
A lot of Earthporn fits the mold of the sublime: majestic vistas of sheer slopes, sweeping valleys, and a passive, human observer dwarfed by the landscape. A view of Greenland’s glaciers and icebergs from 36,000 feet. Mountains meeting the sea in the Faroe Islands. Instead of God, though, these images provide a glimpse of content. r/EarthPorn molds the sublime into images for consumption by the distant gaze of Redditors and lurkers.
Ensconced in the internet, these landscapes cease to be themselves and become ads for themselves.
Some Redditors react to the posts with awe, usually comparing the vista to some otherworldly place. On the photo of Greenland: “This looks like the background on some amazing game”; on the photo of the Faroe Islands: “I'm pretty sure you'll find a horcrux in a cave over there...”; on a photo of some Alaskan waterfall “Looks like Narnia.”
The comparison to artifices like Narnia or an unnamed video game is apt. These are—via lens, aperture, photoshop, lightroom, whatever—sculpted places—made, not natural. N. Katherine Hayles writes in “Simulated Nature and Nature Simulations: Rethinking the Relation between the Beholder and the World”: “When ‘nature’ becomes an object for visual consumption, to be appreciated by the connoisseur’s eye sweeping over an expanse of landscape, there is a good chance it has already left the realm of firsthand experience and entered the category of constructed experience that we can appropriately call simulation.”
The simulation suggests an alienation akin to the spectacle critiqued by Guy Debord: he indicts the society of the spectacle as one in which appearances and representations supplant direct experience. But where simulation is obviously artificial, the spectacle is the artificial dressed up as the natural, which naturalizes the dominant social order. Debord: “The fetishistic appearance of pure objectivity in spectacular relations conceals their true character as relations between people and between classes”
Earthporn is nature as spectacle, both made, and self-naturalizing. The production of the kinds of vistas that get made into Earthporn required immense amounts of labor. The Earthporn itself is the result of the labor of photographers, whose very labor plays into Earthporn’s guise of scientific objectivity.
In his book Windshield Wilderness, David Louter argues that roads choreograph the tourists’ experience of national parks (and by implication nature more broadly), selecting the vistas they see on their behalf, curating their experience of the more-than-human world, and producing what Louter terms a “scenic narrative”.This apparent naturalness of the road was a well-thought out design element of the parks Louter discusses—an engineer in charge of Mount Rainier National Park’s road project carefully considered his choice of materials for surfacing the road (Rainier’s volcanic rock), constructing its retaining walls and guard rails (native stone), and building its bridge (native wood). Such was the work that went into designing and then constructing the vistas that would later become Earthporn.
When the government shutdown took place in early 2019, unstaffed national parks like Yosemite were overwhelmed with overflowing garbage cans and porta-potties, litter, and people breaking rules meant to protect the parks from their millions of yearly visitors. Without their staff, national parks were getting wrecked; such is the reproductive work often necessary for the maintenance of these vistas.
And this is the work that obscures Earthporn’s artifice: most photographers who post on r/Earthporn include a story detailing the trials they had to endure to capture their photo and the rarity of the opportunity. “So glad I got up for this -15°F sunrise. There's only a handful of days in the year where the morning light lines up perfectly with the hole in Hollow Rock.”
“One of my scariest moments as a photographer—what you don’t see here is the 100m drop in front of me and the gale force wind from behind. Two minutes of light and then it was dark again.”
“I hiked alone all day, ran away from two moose, and took a picture of the most amazing view from the summit.”
Almost every photo that receives thousands of upvotes in r/Earthporn is accompanied by stories like these told by the photographer. The comment containing the story, like the “notes” section of an archived photograph, enables the addition of commentary on the photo on the part of the photographer, locating and further defining the subject of the photo and the work that went into the act of capturing it.This commentary enacts a sort of authenticity for the audience—it lends credence to the idea that the photo is a natural landscape that is made more natural by its difficulty to access, as opposed to a vista two minutes away from a parking lot that anyone could capture (a common gripe amongst Reddit users about numerous r/Earthporn submissions).
Earthporn needs this naturalization and sense of authenticity to qualify as porn. If any given image of Earthporn turns out to be faked, desire morphs into disgust, and the viewer is repulsed. The allure of Earthporn is that it is a vista that can be seen in person, and in turn possessed.
Often, a photographer’s submission to r/Earthporn will be altered in some way. As expressed by one photographer’s comments on their post, this is not so much a mode of deceit or embellishment, but a way to alter the image so that it better resembles what they saw with their naked eye. It is, in other words, additional labor with the end of producing more authentic image (an authenticity likely guided by already-inscribed ideas of how nature should look).
Yet Reddit users have an uneasy relationship with Photoshop—they demand authenticity, realism, and scientific objectivity, and the idea of tampering with an image with a program like Photoshop edges into the realm of simulation—a spectacle that fails to hide its artifice. Users will often accuse a photographer who posted an image with especially brilliant colors, of tampering with the image. The implications of doing so, though not explicitly articulated, are damaging. The photographer could be seen as a glory-hunter, karma-whoring by posting images that will undoubtedly get thousands of upvotes but which are disingenuous, repetitive, and as a result do not add anything to the subreddit.
Ironically, the raw photos from the camera would likely suffer neglect: they would not be glamorous enough for porn, they would elicit no desire from r/EarthPorn’s browsers.
Why dwell on something seemingly so niche? Earthporn is not a specialized genre but a name laying bare what has happened to nature more broadly. Earthporn is the completion of the commodity’s colonization of “nature,” and it is the nature of any landscape photography that finds itself online. After the internet and the massive proliferation of content, landscapes cease to be landscapes but candidates for Earthporn. After becoming Earthporn, land is evacuated of all that makes it land in favor of what makes in beautiful.
The title of each r/EarthPorn submission is required to include the image resolution of the photo, a relic from r/EarthPorn’s beginning’s as a space where Redditors could get pretty wallpapers for their phones and desktops. That is Earthporn’s worth. And after the internet, Earthporn is what the planet is good for.
Text: Austin Miles
Images: Compiled from r/Earthporn pages, by Austin Miles