In 1909, two wildlife safari expeditions arrived by boat in Mombasa, Kenya, days apart. One of the parties was huge and led by adventure-loving US President Teddy Roosevelt; the other consisted of only two men and was headed by Cherry Kearton, a young British bird photographer from Yorkshire.
Over the course of several months of safari, the trigger-happy president and his son Kermit killed 17 lions, 11 elephants, 20 rhinos, nine giraffes, 19 zebras, over 400 hippos, hyenas and other large animals, as well as numerous thousands of birds and small animals. In contrast, Kearton, the first man in the world to hunt with a camera and not a gun, only killed one animal, in self-defense.
The two men came from different social worlds and had contrasting views on the importance of wildlife. Roosevelt justified his massacres by saying that he killed for science and education; Kearton was not against filming “for the pot,” but said he takes pictures for love. But when they met in the Kenyan bush, they struck up an unlikely friendship, with the president letting the photographer capture a unique film of him witnessing one of his bloodbaths.
The footage was poor, but it resulted in Kearton and his brother Richard setting up a London film studio that spawned the world’s first wildlife documentaries – now a television staple, and possibly the most important support today for people to appreciate nature.
Kearton’s work as a pioneer of nature photography will be celebrated later this month in a small exhibit that will show 37 of his ‘lost’ photos of lions, leopards, rhinos and other wildlife found in an old office. last year by his great-granddaughter Evie Bulmer, as well as 30 minutes of cine-film which he shot in Africa and which is now owned by the British Film Institute.
Kearton called Roosevelt a “dear friend” but was appalled by his hunt. He would write later: “[T]o helping to a lesser extent to accomplish the extinction of all that is beautiful and interesting is a crime against future generations… Unfortunately, it is a crime in which we have all been complicit.
“It is as a naturalist that I view the indiscriminate killing of game with such horror… I raise my voice with all my might against the wicked and indiscriminate destruction of big game.”
Kearton was way ahead of his time, Bulmer says, popularizing nature for the Victorians in the same way that David Attenborough and others did for modern audiences. “His fascination with recording the world’s wildlife through photography was unique at this time. It focuses on promoting Africa as a playground for the animal rather than the hunter, ”she says.
Beginning in the 1890s, he and his brother Richard acquired a cheap camera and took the first pictures of bird nests with eggs and made the first recordings of birds in the wild. They switched to huge “collodion” glass cameras, but without zooming or fast shutters, they had to design ever more extraordinary dummy masks to get as close as possible to the nervous fauna.
One solution was to have a taxidermist make a large hollow ox, which he would plant in the fields, then crawl inside with the camera lens going through a hole in his head. Another was a moving pile of hay and grass in which Richard was hiding; there was a stuffed sheep with a pneumatic camera, artificial stones, false tree trunks and masks. Together, the brothers took huge risks, rappelling high sea cliffs, staying in rivers for hours, waiting all night and climbing the tallest trees to film the birds in their nests.
Attenborough recognizes the influence of the brothers. In a letter to Bulmer, he said he was “at the age of eight taken to see a film lecture presented by Cherry Kearton. [It] captured my childhood imagination and made me dream of traveling to faraway places to film wild animals.
According to Keartons biographer John Bevis, “the world Cherry lived in was preoccupied with capturing, slaughtering and stuffing animals for display or to complete a collection. Cherry was unique in her desire to photograph undisturbed animals in their natural habitat. He was less a zoologist than a nature lover, less an educator than a cross. His intention was not to produce films made by scientists for scientists and seen by a few but scientists… but an alternative to the ubiquitous characteristics of big game and hunting. “
Cherry Kearton became a war photographer and died in 1940. “If, through my books, photos, and films, the public can gain a wider knowledge of animal creation, and therefore a deeper sympathy, I will be satisfied.” , did he declare. wrote.
The exhibition With Nature and a Camera is at Royal Geographical Society, London, from December 14 to 20.
The Keartons: Inventing Nature Photography, by John Bevis, is published by Uniform Books.