Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography


In 1906 George Shiras III (1859-1942), a lawyer and an amateur naturalist from Pittsburgh, published a series of remarkable nighttime photographs in National Geographic, a small and struggling scientific journal not yet known for its photography.  Taken with crude equipment and often using trip wires, the black-and-white photographs featured leaping white-tail deer, a beaver gnawing on a tree, and a snowy owl perched along the shore of a lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  The pictures, stunning in detail and composition, Celebrated American wildlife at a time when many species--especially birds--were in decline and going extinct because of habitat loss and unrestrained hunting.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, wildlife photography gave conservationists a powerful new tool to draw attention to environmental destruction and rally lawmakers to pass protections and create preserves.

When he became a congressman, Shiras joined forces with President Theodore Roosevelt and a cadre of scientists in Washington, DC, who shaped the conservation movement during the Progressive Era.  His legal and legislative efforts culminated with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and his pioneering work in wildlife photography helped National Geographic become the premier magazine of its kind in the world.