With a magnesium flash triggered by a tripwire, George Shiras shot some of the world’s first nocturnal wildlife photographs. The shock of the bright light exploding in the night is reflected in the startled deer leaping in all directions of the black-and-white images, which illuminated a previously invisible part of the natural world. Shiras, who perfected his techniques from the 1880s until his death in 1942, is now considered among the first wildlife photographers, and a major influence on American conservation.
George Shiras: In the Heart of the Dark Night was recently published in French and English by Éditions Xavier Barral in conjunction with an exhibition at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris. In an essay accompanying the monograph, author Jean-Christophe Bailly describes the photographs:
They suddenly appear out of the enchanted depths to which they will return as soon as the disturbance of flash and camera has passed. In the meantime, however, the shot is there for us, namely that image of animals, isolated and transfixed against the dark night like creatures of flame or ghosts. And in that picture, that instant, all the life and intensity of what living can mean seems to have been pinned down.
Born in Pennsylvania, Shiras was a hunter in his youth until he switched his gun for a camera in 1880. Like Jacob Riis in New York, who used his own version of the magnesium flash to photograph the city’s squalid tenements, photography was an advocacy tool for Shiras. Neither considered their photography an art, but saw it as a visual support for their respective causes.
“Despite the poetic element that emanates from these pictures, their experimental and committed nature distinguished them from the images of certain 19th-century painters and photographers, with their portrayals of a nostalgic, idealized nature, unspoiled and authentic,” editor and curator Sonia Voss writes. “They bear the legacy of the confrontation between man and animal that determined their creation.”
Shiras was also a US Representative for Pennsylvania (1903–05), and as a politician helped secure land that became Olympic National Park and Petrified Forest National Park, as well as an extension to Yellowstone National Park. He introduced legislation that evolved into the Migratory Bird Bill. But it was his 74 photographs published in a July 1906 issue of National Geographic that made the biggest impact, being the first wildlife photographs printed in a magazine that eventually became the genre’s leader.
Gil Grosvenor, then director of the National Geographic Society and its magazine, reportedly said that “nobody had ever seen pictures like that of wild animals.” However, not everyone was enthused, and two members of their Board of Managers resigned, including geologist Alfred H. Brooks, who thought the magazine was becoming just “a picture gallery.”
Some of the 2,400 glass plates of wildlife in the US and Canada that Shiras donated to the Society were scanned for the first time to illustrate In the Heart of the Dark Night. While the images feature their fair share of startled deer, the book also has more placid images captured through Shiras’s jacklighting technique, in which he rode on a canoe with a bright light to catch the eyeshine of animals — a trick he adapted from the Ojibwe. A lynx watches pensively from the shore; a raccoon gnaws at some unseen feast; and a moose wades into the reeds, the water rippling around its huge form. The images record fleeting moments in a dark landscape, one that was better protected thanks to Shiras putting down his rifle and taking up “camera hunting” instead.
George Shiras: In the Heart of the Dark Night is out now from Éditions Xavier Barral. The exhibition of photographs by George Shiras continues through February 14 at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (62 Rue des Archives, 3rd arrondissement, Paris).
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