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george-shiras-national-geographic-5 News & Insight

National Geographic Was Once Disgusted With Wildlife Photography

By Michelle Bird on September 9th 2014

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In 1888, a magazine for distinguished businessmen, explorers, scientists and scholars was founded: the National Geographic. This magazine wasn’t exactly what it is today though, all those stunning photographs were once horribly criticized.

When the first wildlife photographs taken by George Shiras III were published in July 1906, National Society Board Members were outraged, so much so that it caused a few of them to “resign in disgust.” What was their disgust? That such a high-quality magazine was “turning into a ‘picture book.'”

[REWIND: Archive Of Photographs From Depression Era, Easily Searchable]

Shiras, a lawyer and politician, was also one of the first pioneers of flash photography, not only for the equipment, but for the methods he used.

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To photograph wildlife in the dark, Shiras would either: float on a boat in complete silence and darkness, and as soon as he heard any type of noise he would point his camera in that direction and shoot, or he would use a custom-built camera-trap system with trip wire – when animals would come grab the bait, they would set-off the camera and flash-gun.

The flash that Shiras used was so powerful, that it would oftentimes not only blind the animals temporarily, but it would blind Shiras as well.

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Things worked out pretty well for George Shiras in the long-haul – in 1911, he was named into the Board of Managers for National Geographic. President Theodore Roosevelt also backed him up in his conservation efforts advocating “camera hunting” as the alternative to gun hunting wildlife.

Can you imagine National Geographic without its incredible collection of photographs? I certainly can’t!

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CREDIT: Images, courtesy of National Geographic Archives.

[via] Peta Pixel

Michelle Bird is a Southern California based freelance photographer and writer, with a strong focus on music, editorial and portrait photography. She is the founder and creative force behind the music+culture online blog Black Vinyl Magazine, and can often be found in the photo-pit shooting the latest concerts in town. She has a strong passion for art, exploring, vintage finds and most of all animals. Connect with her through Email,
Instagram , or Facebook

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Julia Andrews

    Correction, my error.  There was a board upset in 1902, but the author is correct about the upset with shiras initially. My apology.

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  2. Julia Andrews

    I’m afraid you’ve mistakenly described the story about the National Geographic board members resigning as happening in response to George Shiras’ photographs.The incident happened before George Shiras’ relationship with National Geographic. In fact, Shiras’ work was embraced by the editors and board. He went on to become a member of National Geographic’s board. Your story about the angry board members took place around 1902. 

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  3. Steven Pellegrino

    It’s an interesting article, but what really fascinates me is the gear these photographers had to use. Today if we carry two full frame bodies, a selection of lenses and a couple of speed lights, we have more than enough to get the job done. Those photographers would have loved our gear, if only because it’s so much lighter and compact than what they had to carry. Even if you took out the digital component of what we have and replaced it with film cameras, that’s still far less than what they had. They really had a passion for photography!

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  4. Adrian Jones

    This is a great story! Another great post Michelle Bird!

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    • Michelle Bird

      Thanks Adrian! I’m glad you enjoyed it, hope you learned something new, I sure did while writing it. I think also one of the biggest lessons is that not everyone is going to be a fan of your work, that’s just life, it’s normal, but that doesn’t mean that you should stop pursuing your passion because of it. Oftentimes we let that get in the way of our own success. If Shiras stopped doing photography because of those people that were outraged at his photos being published, then he would’ve never been a pioneer of flash photography, or gotten the attention of the then President, or become a board member. Goes to show, gotta keep on keepin’ on!

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  5. John Cavan

    Goes to show that all those who claim you need to be able to shoot six bazillion frames a second to capture fast moving wildlife that technique can really make up a lot of ground. Great story, but it doesn’t surprise me that it was once that way.

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