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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Camera Trap Pioneers: George Shiras 3d (1859-1942)

Early readers of National Geographic Magazine were much taken with George Shiras' startling photos of startled deer.

His most famous photos were taken at night with camera traps of his own invention.

When an animal bumped the camera's trip wire it activated a magnesium flash gun.

The flash powder sparked briefly before igniting and flared longer than the 1/1000th second duration of a modern electronic flash.

The earsplitting blast of blinding light affected the animals like a stupendous astronomical event.

There was no better way to get spectacular shots of airborne deer while temporarily blinding the photographer and his subjects.

Shiras's invention of the camera trap was the result of trial and error tinkering and outdoor recreation near the Pennsylvanian family's second home in Marquette, Michigan.

His playground and testing area was Whitefish Lake, then a remote wetland   revealed to him by an Ojibway guide named Jack La Pete.

There the lawyer-Congressman-conservationist began his exploration of wildlife photography using a large 5 x 7 landscape camera that required a tripod.

Approaching timid subjects was a problem, because the camera was only capable of time exposures.

The solution, a flat-bottomed skiff camouflaged with leafy branches, strikes me as something that might have resembled a stage set from a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera.

The photographic result, a phantom likeness of a standing deer marked by the pale blur of its high speed escape convinced Shiras to try something different.

The Schmidt Detective Camera, a  4 x 5 sheet film model seemed a better choice.

Its fast shutter meant pictures had to be taken in broad daylight, and its short focal length meant the subjects had to be approached to within 25 feet.

If human scent didn't alert the deer, the skiff did.

For his next attempt Shiras decided on remote control -- stake the camera offshore, hide in a blind 100 yards away, and trigger the camera with a long cord.

This was an improvement, but like previous efforts it only worked for daylight pictures.

He then decided that what he really wanted were night pictures, "when the deer were more active and could be approached more easily. . .".

He had ". . . little doubt about getting close enough for pictures, provided the flashlight powder was a sufficiently powerful illuminant and had the requisite speed."

The illuminant was magnesium powder, but the lighting event was not instantaneous.

The highly flammable mixture briefly fizzed with increasing intensity until it exploded.

Some deer fled during the fizz, while others moved during the flash and gave blurred images.

More experimentation solved this problem too.

The improved flash device consisted of 3 burning alcohol lamps and a rubber bulb that when squeezed sprayed flash powder into the flames.

It proved itself a forerunner of the Molotov cocktail when Shiras bumped the apparatus and ignited the canoe and his boots "with a cloud of stifling smoke".

Shiras was so taken with stunning images of deer in flight, that he wired a second camera and a delay that captured a second image immediately following the first.

The fur bearers of the north woods presented new opportunities, and tested his jury-rigging skills to create effective sets.

He experimented with various triggers, from spring poles baited with carrot to trip wires baited with meat, fish, or even a caged live chicken.

Communing with nature and wildlife photography led him farther afield, often in the company of biologists.

Eventually he camera trapped in Canada, Alaska, and the newly formed Panama Canal Zone.

Unlike modern trail cameras, the explosive flashes of yesteryear did not tempt would-be pilferers.

Shiras once watched nervously as a dog led an Ojibway boy to a fish-baited camera trap he had just set for a wolf.

"I called and whistled, but my meaning was not understood, and the boy and his follower went on."

"The dog, having a keen and discerning nose, hurried to the bait.  An instant later a white cloud sprang up, followed by the usual boom of the exploding powder. The boy dashed out of his smoky surroundings, but the dog beat him to the canoe."

Shiras's lifelong love of wildlife is documented in a two volume collection of writings and photos published in 1935 by the National Geographic Society.

In these books you can follow the maturation of his philosophy of hunting, outdoor recreation, and conservation.

The writing and photos are an evocative primer of environmental history.

When it came to camera trapping, Shiras was "the man".

That's why President Roosevelt reacted like a bull moose to the guest speaker's remarks at the Boone and Crockett Club's annual banquet in 1906.

The speaker happened to be the German Ambassador, and he used his bully pulpit to praise the remarkable camera trapping feats of his countryman, one Carl Georg Schillings, whose work was soon to be published as a book.

Roosevelt informed the Ambassador that it was the man sitting across from him -- Mr. Shiras, who  developed camera trap methodology years ago and who had in fact won a Silver Medal for his photographic achievements at the World Fair of 1889 in Paris.

Shiras apparently listened politely to the interaction, but afterwards searched his memory and recalled forgotten correspondence with a German professor from the Berlin Museum.

The letters were still in his files.

Upon reading them again, Shiras learned that he had openly shared his inventions with the professor, provided a sketch, and wished him well in his future endeavors.

Armed with this updated information, Roosevelt further clarified the matter with the Ambassador.

There is a long list of acknowledgements in the first edition of Schilling's With Camera Trap and Rifle, but the name of George Shiras is not there.

To the Ambassador's credit Shiras was correctly acknowledged in the second edition.


Shiras, 3d. George. 1936. Hunting wild life with camera and flashlight, a record of sixty-five years' visits  to the woods and waters of North America.  2 volumes. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.

Schillings, C.G. 1905. With flash-light and rifle. Photographing by flashlight at night the wild animal world of Equatorial Africa. New York, Harper Brothers.


randomtruth said...

Excellent docu-drama on the origins of cam trapping, Codger.

After seeing Shiras' setup, I feel a little guilty for ever having sung the camera trapper's blues. We've got it easy. Flash powder! Insane.

Cheers to George, cheers to you and yours, and cheers to the whole new year of hacking cameras and pursuing the perfect picture that has just begun!


Beverly said...

Wow...stunning! The photos are even great today, huh? I can see why you revere the guy... Duh!

What a fun thing...someday I'll have one set up for da birdies!

Happy New Year to you and yours, Chris. Well, and Fred, too!

Kitt said...

Wow, that's fascinating. Talk about dedication.

You've probably seen this, but if you haven't, you might like it: Elk plays in the mud.

Happy New Year!

Bpaul said...

Awesome post

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thank you, all, and glad you enjoyed it. More posts on camera trap pioneers will be coming. And Happy New Year, too!

- clark - said...

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If you like it, please send it to your friends so the test base can be diverse.