George Shiras III | Wildlife Photography Pioneer
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
In a recent article, Using Trail Cameras To Effectively Fill Buck Tags, I mentioned George Shiras III being one of the first to remotely photograph wildlife, with his first photos dating back to 1889. I was very intrigued and decided to learn more about his background and affinity for wildlife photography.
George Shiras III was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on January 1st 1859. By 1883 he was practicing law in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His law career led him to a career in politics where he served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1889 to1890 and eventually the 58th Congress. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt and joined in on many of the conservation programs being developed at the time.
Shiras grew up hunting and enjoying the outdoors before he began turning his focus to photography. He first began photographing wildlife from a boat by illuminating them at night to temporarily render them motionless and then capture the images with a box camera. This was a similar practice to his now illegal hunting tactic, known as "jacklighting", where a fire was built in a skillet on the bow of a boat to distract the prey while the hunter aimed at the reflection of the animal's eyes. After some experimentation, he developed his "camera traps" that were remotely tripped by an animal, triggering a chemical explosion for flash and a snap of the camera. This resulted in some of his most famous photos.
In 1906 National Geographic featured 70 of his images, bringing his new found form of wildlife photography to the public. He ventured across the country documenting his travels and the nation's wildlife. On one of his three visits to Yellowstone National Park, he discovered a moose. Moose were not known to exist this far south and after a study by the precursor to the USFWS, the U.S. Biological Survey, they confirmed that this was a different subspecies of moose all together. It was named thereafter as, the Shiras moose.
Along with his ground breaking advances in wildlife photography and species discovery, he greatly influenced national conservation. Most notably his conception and protection of the bill that in 1973 became the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
All of this information and more can be found in an extremely well researched biography by James H. McCommons, Camera Hunter : George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography .