Meet Grandfather Flash, the Pioneer of Wildlife Photography

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.

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 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.’”

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.”

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.’”

“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.

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