George Shiras III – First Wildlife Photographer


By Mikel B Classen

“I see. You know George Shiras three. He must be very interesting.” “He is. He’s about the most interesting man I know.” -Ernest Hemingway, from “Homage to Switzerland”

George Shiras III (or as Shiras signed it, “3d”) first saw the woods and waters of northern Michigan in the summer of 1870, when he was 11 years old on a trip to Marquette with his father. Nothing in his later experience would ever dim the impression they made on him-not the trappings of wealth and position; not the influence of the finest schools; not the example of his father, a U.S. Supreme Court justice; not a promising legal career of his own. Not even a term spent in the U.S. Congress, where he introduced the legislation that would become the Migratory Bird Law-securing for Shiras an important place in the annals of conservation-could lure him away for long.

Shiras returned every summer to Marquette, Michigan for over 70 years. There he married his wife, daughter of Peter White, noted pioneer and prominent citizen of Marquette, and had two children, a boy and a girl. During his early years, the interests of George Shiras 3d were those of a keen hunter and fisherman. As he grew older and his viewpoint broadened, he became more and more enthralled by the wildlife and the beauties of the region where he had passed so many years. By the late 1880s his hunting instincts had been more and more replaced by the sympathetic desire of the naturalist to know more of the lives, habits, and mentality of the wild things he so often encountered. Whatever that quality was, by 1889, his 30th year, he largely lay gun and rod aside in favor of a more absorbing instrument: the camera.

Shiras’ own words: “Fairly within the realm of romance were my two days travel on foot, with an Indian guide, when I was twelve years old, through a pristine wilderness to a beautiful lake hidden in the forest about twenty miles east of Marquette. The lake had been discovered by my guide the year before. I named it Whitefish Lake because a small river of that name entered Lake Superior at a point that made probable its origin in this lake, although this connection was not verified until a few years later. To this secluded place I have returned for more than sixty consecutive years, first as a boy and later often accompanied by relatives and friends. The natural beauties of this woodland haven and the interesting wildlife inhabiting the surrounding forest undoubtedly had a governing influence in developing my career as a sportsman-naturalist. It was there that, as a youthful hunter, I shot my first deer. There I took my first daylight And flashlight photographs of wildlife, and there I became an observing field naturalist.”

Whitefish Lake (now known as Peter White Lake) near Deerton, became the family retreat. It was a place that would soon go down in the annals of photographic history as the location for Shiras’ innovative and pioneering of wildlife photography. Wildlife photography barely existed: Cameras were cumbersome and primitive, wildlife was elusive and difficult to film. But Shiras’s inventive genius contrived methods and devices that resulted, among other things, in the first flash photographs and the first trip-wire photography of animals at night. Other photographers of the day had captured breathtaking scenes of landscapes and wars, portraits of people and individuals, but wildlife, it was unexplored territory.

Shiras devised several methods of capturing wildlife on film. One, he would float quietly in a canoe after dark, his camera mounted on the front, intently listening until he heard noise or movement and then take a shot towards the source of the sound. Another was where he set up bait attached to trip wires where any animal taking the bait would also take its own picture. The results of some of these portrayed wildlife in never before seen images of the creatures of the wilderness going about their habits and routines. The mysteries of wildlife was presented to the world.

Shiras’ pictures were breathtakingly dynamic, utterly unique for the times. Enlargements of some of them, the famous “Midnight Series” of deer at night, photographed entirely around Deerton, won the gold medal in the forestry division at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and then won top prize in the photographic division as well, without ever having been formally entered in that competition! The series also received the grand prize at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Perhaps inevitably, Shiras came to the attention of Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the Editor of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, with results that set the standard for the Geograpic’s photographic reputation. The July 1906 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC published wildlife photographs by Shiras. Grosvenor printed 74 of Shiras’s photographs accompanied by only a brief text, devoting nearly the entire issue to George 3d, a proportion unheard of in its day. The gamble was wildly successful, making this issue of the magazine one of the most significant ever published. For Shiras, it meant wide dissemination of his pioneering work. For the National Geographic Society, it meant a gratifying surge in membership and the beginning of a close and renowned association with wildlife photography.

The impact of the July 1906 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC reached all the way to the President Theodore Roosevelt, who was so taken that he promptly picked up his pen and implored Shiras to “write a big book-a book of bulk as well as worth, in which you shall embody these pictures and the results of all your invaluable notes upon the habits, not only of game but of the numerous other wild creatures that you have observed….Do go ahead and do this work!” Shiras was deeply impressed with this appeal. But he was too busy in the active pursuit of photography and conservation work to undertake it at the time. For the next several decades he ranged all over North America with his cameras, but always returning to his beloved place at Whitefish Lake. All the while his relationship to the National Geographic Society strengthened. Between 1906 and 1932 Shiras published nine illustrated articles in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, which generated so many requests for prints that pictorial supplements of two of his prizewinning photographs of deer at night were included with the July 1913 and August 1921 issues.

But as he grew older and his eyesight began to dim, Shiras recalled Roosevelt’s insistence and resolved to finally write his “big book.” Once again he turned to the Geographic. After all, he had been a Society trustee since 1911, and in 1928 he, in turn, entrusted 2,400 of his finest photographs to the Society for permanent retention in its files. Now he selected 950 of these images for inclusion in a two-volume work comprising extensively revised versions of his many articles.

Failing eyesight in his later years forced Shiras to set aside his camera. He ultimately produced a two-volume book about his wilderness photography titled Hunting Wild Game with Camera and Flashlight, the magnum opus was published in 1935 ,the first volume of which is almost entirely devoted to the images captured at Whitefish Lake and the Upper Peninsula. Nearly 30 years had elapsed since Roosevelt had first urged him to compile it, and in belated recognition of this inspiration, Shiras dedicated the volumes to the memory of the late President. It was very warmly received. The prestigious British Journal of Nature echoed most reviews when it proclaimed the book “an outstanding work of its kind” that “must be looked upon as a classic in the history of wildlife photography.”

Despite this reception, the exacting Shiras unhappily discovered that many minor errors had crept into the text. So despite failing health, for he was now 78, he labored to make the necessary corrections as quickly as possible. The result was the second edition of the work, amended, revised, and enlarged, published in 1936. Still unsatisfied, Shiras even began work on a third edition, but did not finish it before he died in 1942 at 83. Thus it is the second edition, in Shiras’s judgment, that is the best of the two. Summing up his own life’s work as well as his relationship with the Society, its pages remain the most complete guide to the world of George Shiras, a world of woods and waters and wildlife. It remains a monument to an important early conservationist who is also known as “the original advocate of wildlife photography.”

Thus George Shiras 3d, the original advocate of wildlife photography, was (1) the first to photograph in daytime wild animals of birds from a canoe or blind; (2) the first to get automatic daylight pictures of wild animals by their touching a string across a trail or pulling on bait attached to a string operating the shutter of a camera; (3) the first to operate the camera at a distance by a string running from a blind; (4) the first to invent a means for picturing animals from a canoe by hand flashlight; (5) the first to invent a means to obtain automatic flashlight photographs for which the animals or birds fired the flash; (6) the first to use two flashlights and two cameras, one set picturing the animal when quiescent and the other set, a second later, showing the animal in action when alarmed by the explosion of the first flashlight; and (7) the first to practice wing shooting with the camera by means of a specially devised apparatus by which wild fowl and shore birds can be photographed when flying from 50 to 70 miles an hour.

George Shiras 3d was one of the true pioneers of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he realized its potential then took it to a historic level. His name still graces many places in the Marquette area, as it should. He revolutionized a medium that we take for granted every day. He was an amazing man for an amazing place.

A raccoon has its picture taken taking its own picture demonstrating Shiras’s method.

Collectors note: The July 1906 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC was so popular that it was reprinted soon after its initial publication. These reprints are apparently indistinguishable from the originals. Reprints were also made in 1964. These are marked “reprint” on the bottom of the cover. The pictorial supplements issued with the July 1913 and August 1921 issues came folded inside the front covers of the magazines. Both unfolded and framed copies were available upon written request to Society headquarters. As can be seen in the illustrations, it is clear that these reproductions were published by the Society. Shiras had approved a series of limited-edition bromide enlargements of his award-winning “Midnight” pictures in 1901, prior to his close involvement with the National Geographic Society. These were produced in a variety of sizes, often limited to a thousand copies apiece. “Copyright by George Shiras 3d” would probably appear in the lower left corner of each.

Content copyright . Mikel Classen. All rights reserved.