• PROOF:
  • November 20, 2015

Meet Grandfather Flash, the Pioneer of Wildlife Photography

Author
Jessie Wender

Last month National Geographic archivist Bill Bonner shared a beautiful book with me, In the Heart of the Dark Night, dedicated to the work of photographer George Shiras. As a newer photo editor at the magazine, I wasn’t familiar with his work. Shiras, who began photographing in 1889, is largely credited as the father of wildlife photography—he was the first to use camera traps and flash photography when photographing animals.

In 1906 National Geographic published 74 of his photographs, and in 1928, Shiras donated 2,400 of his glass plate negatives to the Society. These remain in our archive today.

Lynx on the shore of Loon Lake, near Lake Wanapitei, Ontario, Canada, July 1902
Lynx on the shore of Loon Lake, near Lake Wanapitei, Ontario, Canada, July 1902
Albino porcupine on a floating log, Whitefish Lake, Lake Superior region, Michigan, July 1, 1905
Albino porcupine on a floating log, Whitefish Lake, Lake Superior region, Michigan, July 1, 1905

In the Heart of the Dark Night (and the corresponding exhibit now on display in Paris) was edited and curated by Sonia Voss, who came to National Geographic to work with Bonner on an image selection from the archive. National Geographic scanned the original glass plates, which had never been scanned before. Some of the plates dated back to 1897 and had damage and scratches. La Chambre Noire in Paris retouched the images using traditional techniques, including spotting, dodging, and burning.

“When I first discovered Shiras’ photographs, I was struck by their beauty and eeriness. But beyond the poetic element that emanates from these pictures, there is something more,” Voss told me in a recent email interview, combining her personal reflections with quotes from her book. “Their experimental and committed nature distinguishes them from the images of certain 19th-century painters and photographers, with their portrayals of a nostalgic, idealized nature, unspoiled and authentic.”

George Shiras and his assistant John Hammer aboard their jacklighting-equipped canoe, Whitefish Lake, Lake Superior region, Michigan, 1893
George Shiras and his assistant John Hammer aboard their jacklighting-equipped canoe, Whitefish Lake, Lake Superior region, Michigan, 1893

George Shiras was born in 1859 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and had a passion for hunting while growing up. He was working as a lawyer and politician when he began photographing wildlife, and went on to dedicate his life to photographing animals in Michigan and the area surrounding Lake Superior. He became an ardent protector of wildlife and initiated the creation of several national parks and refuges.

“Initially, Shiras developed his photographic pursuits as a way of responding to the call of the wild out of hunting season,” Voss wrote. “But his fascination for the beauty of nature and his commitment to the protection of species quickly turned him into the most fervent defender of ‘camera hunting.’”

White-tailed doe on the banks of Whitefish River, Lake Superior region, Michigan, date unknownn
White-tailed doe on the banks of Whitefish River, Lake Superior region, Michigan, date unknown
Snowy owl perched above Whitefish River, Lake Superior region, Michigan, ca 1900
Snowy owl perched above Whitefish River, Lake Superior region, Michigan, ca 1900

To photograph at night Shiras mimicked a hunting technique he learned from the Ojibwa tribe called jacklighting, when fire is placed in a pan at the front of a canoe, and the hunter sits in the bow of the boat.

“The glow makes it possible to distinguish the animal, whose attention is caught by the flames, causing it to stand still with an expectant air,” Voss explained. “At the rear of the canoe, the hunter, cast into the shadows, only needs to aim between the animal’s eyes, which reflect the flames and stand out like two bright beacons in the night. In the photographic version, the fire is replaced by a kerosene lamp and the trigger of the rifle by the shutter release of the camera.”

Moose in the mist, Minnesota, 1909
Moose in the mist, Minnesota, 1909
Grizzly bear, Yellowstone Valley, Montana, 1908
Grizzly bear, Yellowstone Valley, Montana, 1908

To photograph animals far from the shoreline, Shiras set up camera traps using suspended string or rope that, when disturbed, triggered a flash and a remotely controlled camera that Shiras developed using a complex systems of wires. Shiras called this method flashlight trapping. “At that time, flash photography was still quite new and was created by an explosion of magnesium powder,” Voss wrote. “One can only imagine the detonation triggered by the explosion, together with the intense brightness, similar to a ball of fire, which conjured up, in Shiras’ words, a mystifying ‘blowing moon.’”

Raccoon-taken-with-photographic-trap,-northeast-shore-of-Whitefish-Lake,-Lake-Superior-region,-Michigan,-1903
Raccoon taken with photographic trap, northeast shore of Whitefish Lake, Lake Superior region, Michigan, 1903

“To Shiras,” Voss wrote, “Photography, enhanced by its most recent developments, was an irreplaceable medium for revealing the unknown and attesting to the beauty of an endangered world. The way he regarded photography not only from an aesthetic point of view but also as a means of documenting nature and shaping a new relationship to it is of great historical importance and paved the way to the long history of wildlife photography.”


The exhibition “George Shiras, In the Heart of the Dark Night” is on view at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris until February 14, 2016. The exhibit includes vintage prints from National Geographic and the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette, Michigan. The publication In the Heart of the Dark Night, published by Editions Xavier Barral, can be purchased here.

There are 19 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. anthony conley
    April 24, 2016

    Magnifico

  2. Kathe
    April 13, 2016

    I live in Marquette and dabble in nature/wildlife photography. Shiras’ name is firmly rooted in our history. I’m baffled as to how it’s possible I did not know of his photography. I will definitely have to look into this more. Thank you!

  3. bev barton
    February 20, 2016

    Nice article. I have the original when he won the award in Paris and St. Louis that I want to sell. Prints were selling for $5,000.

    • Sonia Voss
      February 23, 2016

      Dear Bev Barton, As as curator of the Paris exhibition and author of the book, I am interested in knowing more about your print. Would you contact me on sonia.voss@orange.fr? Best,
      Sonia

  4. Andrea Buzzichelli
    January 22, 2016

    I decided to tribute to this great man and stunning photographer one of my last work . If you would like here is the adress http://www.andreabuzzichelli.it/Personal/Inhabitants/

    • Kevin
      January 22, 2016

      Fantastic work, Andrea. Truly. You caught the haunting spirit of Shiras’s work amazingly well.

  5. Ivonne Salinas
    November 30, 2015

    Enigmatic

  6. Dr Lakshminarasimhan
    November 29, 2015

    Great shots overcoming the limitations of the technology of that time.

  7. Jan
    November 29, 2015

    really great shots even by todays standards

  8. Alana Costigan
    November 29, 2015

    Yes, that does not look like a Snowy Owl to me either. We get quite a few of them around here in the winter. I the Lynx was a Snow Leopard at first glance. Beautiful photography.

  9. Sonia Voss
    November 26, 2015

    Thanks to both of you for this clarification. The documents I based my researches on (autobiography & various Nat Geo reportages from 1906 and later) bore different captions and I decided on the one that was written shortest after the photography was taken. This will be revised in case of reedition.

  10. Natun Somoy
    November 26, 2015

    Very powerful black and white photographs…

  11. Sean
    November 22, 2015

    Is it just me or does the “Snowy Owl” look an awful lot like a Barred Owl?

  12. Corey Lange
    November 22, 2015

    The “Snowy Owl” looks like it’s actually a Barred Owl…

  13. Silas S
    November 22, 2015

    These animals are ‘Born Free.’ This story in a way reminds me of George Adamson and how a generation distanced themselves from hunting to embrace photography.

  14. S. Ryall
    November 21, 2015

    Awed. Totally awed. Wished I was close enough to see the exhibit in person. I should go at the opening and be dragged out at the end of the day.

  15. christy roberts
    November 21, 2015

    Absolutely stunning shots. What an achievement to have captured such dramatic shots so long ago.

  16. Kevin
    November 20, 2015

    I *never* tire of great photography, especially when I see images of this kind and know that even a hundred years later it would still be an achievement to create fantastic photos like this. Astonishing.

  17. julia andrews
    November 20, 2015

    Shiras’ work is exquisitely haunting. I had the honor of working with archivist Bill Bonner and curator Sonia Voss on this project and I was struck by the power of their instinctive curiosity to unearth the fascinating tales behind this mesmerizing collection. And thanks to Jesse and Proof for highlighting their efforts. Bravo to all!

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