Magazine article Natural History

Photographers as Naturalists

Magazine article Natural History

Photographers as Naturalists

Article excerpt

Before the invention of photography in 1839, explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt and Captain James Cook brought watercolor artists along with them to document the world's plants and animals. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, a world without photographs was quickly becoming unimaginable, and every scientific expedition was accompanied by at least one photographer.

True, many of the early photographers' "wildlife" pictures were of explorers posing with the animals they had just shot. But some of these hardy souls became hooked on photographing living animals in the wild, whatever the effort or risk involved in capturing the images. A. R. Dugmore, an exemplary pioneer, once stood his ground against a charging rhinoceros while clutching a massive twenty-pound reflex camera. (Roll film was invented only in the 1880s, flashbulbs in the 1930s, and lightweight telephoto lenses and electronic cameras during the past few decades.)

Carl Akeley, best remembered for creating the Museum's Hall of African Mammals, was one of the great explorer-naturalists whose photographs appeared regularly in the pages of Natural History seventy-five years ago. Akeley made the first motion pictures of gorillas in their native forests and invented a special panoramic camera for field photography. During the 1920s and 1930s, the stylish husband-and-wife team of Martin and Osa Johnson also made wildlife movies in Africa and shot stills of rarely seen creatures for this magazine.

Right from the start, photographs were popularly believed to be more objective than sketches and paintings, since they seemed to be produced solely by light and chemicals rather than the human hand and eye. Although photographs were widely taken for reflections of reality, not a few photographers found they could build successful careers by using ingenious tricks to manipulate their images. Some simply moved a stone or log to get a better view of a flock of flamingos, while others tethered snakes and mongooses together, hoping to stage a dramatic-looking death match. …

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