Visualizing Extinction

A talk about the philosophical and psychological implications of the extinction of animals


Fields of Knowledge
  • Health / Sustainability
  • Philosophy / Theory
  • Politics / Economics

Organizing Institutions



Co-sponsored by the
Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought is pleased to announce "Visualizing Extinction," a public talk by Joshua Schuster on Monday, November 5, 2018 from 6-8:00pm that explores the literary, philosophical, and psychological implications of the extinction of animals. Scattered across various archives are drawings, photographs, and taxidermies of last animals collected over the past two centuries, remnant images of a final animal before its extinction. About the same time as scientific knowledge of extinction was confirmed in the first decades of the nineteenth century and after, the technology of photography began to be used to document extinction. By the late nineteenth century, new developments in photography also allowed for cameras to capture moving animals in the wild. But what does it mean to photograph extinction or to collect extinct animal specimens in a museum for visual display?

As images indexing extinction accumulated in the twentieth century, public consciousness around animal extinction and human extinction underwent dramatic reevaluation. In recent decades, photographers have taken on specific projects to photograph and document last animals in the time of what is being called "the sixth mass extinction" in the history of the earth. However, some artists have been pushing back against the dominance of last animal imagery in visualizing extinction. Instead, a new wave of visual imagery is stressing how the visual iconography of lastness can be reworked into new images that challenge presuppositions of the inevitability of extinction.

Every encounter with an image of extinction thus presents a contradiction. Such images both make extinction visible yet question how it is possible to see extinction at all. Such images also are involved in visualizing the end of visualization. Looking at images of extinction raises a number of further questions: How is it possible to see something that has vanished? What kind of aesthetic responses are appropriate? Who takes these photographs and who keeps them? How should we look at these images in an ethical way yet also reflect on their violence? And what happens when these same visual tropes and ethical concerns are applied to photographs of humans undergoing extinction events?

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Schuster's talk will address several crucial moments in the history of visualizing extinction, including Eroll Fuller's collection Lost Animals and Joel Sartore's Photo Ark project.

He will also engage the above photograph of the Michigan Carbon Works, which depicts a pile of bison bones collected after the collapse of the bison population from 1870-1883 due to extensive hunting in the North American plains. Only a few hundred of the animals remained when this photograph was taken. This image is an early example of the "extinction shot."

Joshua Schuster is Associate Professor in English and Writing Studies at Western University. His research focuses on American Literature, poetics, and environmental ideas. His book Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics (2015), explores modernist American literature and music in relation to environmental problems of the era between 1900-1950.

"Certainly, no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated extermination of its inhabitants." – Charles Darwin

"To discover how the extinct species have from time to time been replaced by the new ones down to the very latest geological period, is the most difficult, and at the same time the most interesting problem in the natural history of the earth." – Alfred Russel Wallace