Air pollution can present a visible threat to our environment and health. Anti-pollution activism spans hundreds of years, and new media technologies have brought new campaigns. Angela Saward explores how images and film have informed people of the insidious threat to health posed by dirty air.
Some observers of polluted air saw it as beautiful: smoky chimneys and misty skylines became the trademark of artistic representations of atmospheric city landscapes (especially of London). Smog (a contraction of ‘smoke’ plus ‘fog’) was a feature of the urban environment through the 19th and 20th centuries in the Global North and attracted artists as far away as Japan.
Though some saw it as “the incense of industry”, people knew air pollution could be damaging. Filthy city air was not so beautiful for those who could not afford to leave. This dystopian view of the city shows that it is a place of wealth and luxury on the one hand, but also inequality on the other, with clamouring people pleading for scraps and death looming over everyone, and noxious industrial chimneys on the horizon poisoning the surrounding landscape.
Chemist Julius B Cohen illustrated the harms of soot in his lecture on ‘Air Pollution in Leeds’, delivered in 1896. The leaves of the hardiest plants, such as a holly leaf, were blackened by soot particles from air pollution, which filled up the pores of leaves and gradually destroyed plants. Cohen’s lecture shows that the effects of pollution were well understood, at least when it came to plants and the “hideous surroundings” caused by unsightly chimneys and the sooty deposits they created.
John Evelyn is often considered the ‘grandfather’ of smoke-abatement activism. His 1661 treatise, ‘Fumifugium or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London’, called for noxious and polluting trades to be exiled to the edges of the city so that London would be a pleasant environment for the aristocracy. This work was reproduced in 1930, 1933, 1971 and 2011. A reviewer of the 1930s reprint felt that words were more effective than pictures. They complained about “the modern method of pictures showing the pall of smoke over our cities” and preferred Evelyn’s vivid written condemnation of London resembling the “Suburbs of Hell”.
Many campaigners felt that images were vital evidence in the campaign to lobby for clean air, though. As well as tables of data (lots and lots and lots of tables!), they used photographs to document the harms wrought by smog and soot. Some showed the stunted growth of crops grown under “the constant shower of soot”. Lady Betty Melville used contrasting images of Sheffield, clear on a Sunday and then under a “pall of smoke” by the end of Monday, to argue for “the necessity of some very radical alterations”. Pointing out social and health ill-effects, she asked, “Does anyone (barring a thief or a microbe) love a fog?”
Campaigners also sought to make air pollution visible in new ways, such as measuring “soot fall” via devices like the gauge above in a photograph from 1912. Over time an array of smoke-recording devices became available to monitor data on smoke and sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere, and regulatory powers were established to create smoke-free zones to respond to complaints of smoke (or noise) pollution and levy fines on businesses that were non-compliant.
Chimneys pumping out dirty smoke is an image used over many centuries and deployed often in anti-pollution activism. How successful was this use of the ‘guilty’ chimney? By 1949, nearly 400 local authorities had signed up to the National Smoke Abatement Society, which produced pamphlets such as those above.
Following already growing concerns, the Great Smog of London in December 1952 demonstrated better than any cityscape or blackened leaf how damaging air pollution could be to health. Low temperatures with little wind cloaked London in thick smog for four days. At least 4,000 people died immediately, with a further 8,000 shortly afterwards. People became much more aware of the science of smog, and of smog’s effects on health. Widespread horror at the unnecessary deaths resulted in the 1956 Clean Air Act in the United Kingdom. The use of particle-producing fuel began to be regulated and clean-air zones were created.
Yet by 1960, cities such as Leeds were still shrouded in “mourning black”, according to Dr Mary Catterall, who became Senior Registrar in Respiratory Medicine at Leeds General Infirmary that year. She wrote: “Buildings were black, car lights were necessary in the middle of the day, the air was thick with soot and smelt acrid. Air pollution came not only from factories and hospitals, but also from tens of thousands of domestic chimneys burning coal. Babies were put out in prams, from small back-to-back homes and after a single morning on the pavement, their faces were marked with soot and pram covers were filthy.”
To show people the continuing human suffering, Catterall collaborated with student filmmakers to produce ‘It Takes Your Breath Away’, a film about air pollution in Leeds. The film won a Silver Medal at the British Medical Association’s annual film competition in 1964. Catterall appears in the film in her clinic, talking to a patient who had been an anaesthetic assistant. He had to change his job to one with lighter duties as the air quality in the hospital was so poor and his lungs had been affected. Hospitals were exempt from cleaning their air – which was hugely problematic when they were such big polluters – and Catterall highlighted this injustice.
The rise of the motor car introduced a new kind of air pollution from particles borne by car exhausts. In the student-produced film ‘Horsepower to Hydrocarbons’ (circa 1967), the many ill-effects of air pollution are surveyed in Los Angeles, perhaps the car ownership capital of the USA at the time. Once again, pollution is described as “deadly as war”. The film invited viewers to consider what the future held for children and their more vulnerable bodies.
More recently, Forensic Architecture’s film, ‘Cloud Studies’, which features in the ‘In the Air’ exhibition, explores how air can be mobilised to oppress, police and contaminate people and environments. Films and images continue to be powerful ways of getting us to look in new ways at the air around us, to see injustice in how some people are affected more than others, and to think about how we can make a difference. As the earlier film ‘Horsepower to Hydrocarbons’ notes, “We must actively support and share in air-pollution control. It’s as important as our next breath.”
About the author
Angela is a research development specialist at Wellcome Collection with a background in film and sound archives. She has worked with artists and television producers on various archive-film-led projects. She co-curated ‘Here Comes Good Health!’ in 2012, and works with the exhibitions, publishing and policy teams on sourcing collections material.