By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
When we think of early nature photographers, we might think of images made in the 19th century by Carleton Watkins, whose photos of Yosemite sparked interest in western landscapes, or William Henry Jackson, whose photos of Yellowstone were instrumental in establishing the first national park. Or maybe you think of George Shiras III, who took the first wildlife photos published by National Geographic magazine back in 1906. You probably don’t think of Cherry Kearton (1871 – 1940), but you should. He was the David Attenborough of his time. In fact, he inspired Attenborough when David was all of eight years old. This week, the Royal Geographical Society in London is hosting an exhibit, With Nature and a Camera, showing 37 photos of lions, rhinos and other wildlife recently found in a desk by Kearton’s great-granddaughter.
Kearton was a pioneer in wildlife photography and documentary filmmaking. He is credited with taking the first pictures of lions in their normal environment (1909) and the first shot of a bird’s nest with eggs in it in 1892. He and his naturalist brother, Richard, published the first books on natural history that were illustrated with photos.
Back when most wealthy Europeans and Americans were more interested in trophy hunting, Kearton wanted to photograph animals in their native habitat, undisturbed by his presence. To achieve that, he went to extremes. He and Richard had a taxidermist create a hollow ox, which he could place in a field and use as a blind, crawling inside and taking photos when animals drew close. He also used hollow stumps, heaps of grass and straw, artificial rocks, and more.
Kearton tried to be invisible and unthreatening to animals. In a way, he was following NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices a century before they were written. He said of one photo shoot in Africa “for pictures of this nature, I often had to remain in one position for 35 or 40 minutes – dreadfully uncomfortable in a hot, fly-pestered country but the slightest movement would have frightened my subjects away.” And he did all this with the large, plate-glass field cameras and the bulky, heavy kinematograph cameras of his time!
Kearton mounted several expeditions to Africa in the early 1900s. In one year-long trek, he and his party journeyed across the continent, east to west, shooting more than 16,000 feet of film with his kinematograph cameras. In his 1909 expedition, Kearton met Theodore Roosevelt, who was off on his own African adventure. Roosevelt hunted and killed scores of large animals. Kearton “hunted with his camera.” Despite their differences, they struck up a lasting friendship.
Back in England, Kearton and his brother used the footage to create the world’s first wildlife documentary films. He would lecture and show his films at museums and other public venues. That’s where young Attenborough saw him. In a recent note to Kearton’s great-granddaughter, Attenborough said that the presentation “captured my childish imagination and made me dream of traveling to far-off places to film wild animals.”
The Kearton brothers saw themselves as educators. They weren’t doing all this for scientists. Rather, their seven films and 19 books were meant more for the general public. “If through my books, still pictures and films the public can gain a wider knowledge of the animal creation, and consequently a deeper sympathy, I shall be satisfied,” Cherry Kearton once wrote.
The next time I’m hauling my backpack full of gear out in the field, instead of whining about how heavy it is, I think I’ll think back to Cherry and Richard Kearton working with wooden tripods, plate-glass cameras with fixed lenses, and hiding in a taxidermied ox and then I won’t feel so bad.