Six years before National Geographic published George Shiras’s groundbreaking nighttime wildlife photos, they were shown at the Paris Exposition of 1900, as part of a U.S. forestry exhibition. The images, from his “Midnight Series,” were made using flash photography to capture deer and other animals at the edge of a lake at night, taken from a canoe mounted with a light that attracted the animals’ attention. Shiras’s images were a hit in Paris, winning prizes including a silver medal in photography, a category they were not entered in, and they were hailed as fine art. Since then, his work has become known as the foundation of wildlife photography, and Shiras as the father of the genre.
Shiras’s work is back in France, on view at Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, in a show called “L’Intérieru de la Nuit” (“In the Heart of the Night”) up until February, and in a catalogue published by Éditions Xavier Barral. Taken in the late 1880s on Whitefish Lake in Michigan, Shiras’s “Midnight Series” was made using a hunting technique called jacklighting, in which a light shone into the woods attracts the attention of an animal and reflects its glowing eyes. Where jacklighting hunters then fire a bullet, Shiras lit flash powder, freezing the animal like the proverbial deer in headlights, framed by dark night and reflected in still water. While many images record actual deer – a famous example from the Paris series entitled “Innocents Abroad” shows two fawns and their mother – others depict the variety of Peninsula wildlife, including raccoon, lynx and moose (a species of which was named in Shiras’s honor). An early proponent of ‘camera hunting’ as a conservation-minded alternative to hunting with a gun, Shiras went on to serve as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature and then U.S. Congress, where he helped pass the Migratory Bird Act; he later became a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, who shared Shiras’s interest in nature conservancy. Wildlife photography—and wildlife—have undergone dramatic changes since Shiras took these images, but the pictures exist in their own timeless space. Writes poet and playwright Jean-Christophe Bailly in an essay in the show’s catalogue, “the process in which [Shiras’s photos] arise can itself be dated, but time in these images is quite different, they have no place in the world of clocks, of watches, of men.”