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By Laurent Arthur, Deputy-curator of the Natural History Museum of Bourges (France), author of “Pionniers de la Photographie Animalière.”


Today, the trail of the pioneers of animal photography will lead us to an encounter with the smaller of wildlife representatives: to the world of insects. A universe which, as you will see, created a lot of problems for our ancestors ...

"Even though these animals are small, why not hunt them photographically as did Shiras and Dugmore with mammals, I wondered." This thought from an early twentieth century's photographer foreshadows the discovery of a new territory for animal images: macrophotography. A specific optical approach is being inverted: while the pioneers, attracted by the "big beasts" try to reduce a deer or a heron and have them fit on a 5 x 7 inches glass plate, entomologists attempt a reverse operation: enlarging the infinitely small to make it visible, attractive or impressive.

Butterfly hunting

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Kearton brothers still seem to be the first to have cleared up this new world. In 1898 their book " The Art of hunting and photographing birds and insects" was published. In the last chapter, "Insects and other creatures at work and play", they open the doors to their readers to another planet as rich as it is local. "These creatures literally fill our woods and fields," they say with accuracy.

The family which was the most exciting for them was the butterflies, yet these highly mobile species are not the easiest to capture on glass plates and the very poorly reactive photographic surfaces of that time.


Here is the story of their first encounter with a lepidoptera: "My brother focused his camera on a thyme flower, put a plate in position, attached a pneumatic tube and stood as far away as he could, but alas! As soon as the eye of the lens was focused on this flower, the butterflies took affection for another flower that grew a little further. The camera was moved again and again, and always with the same result. He then had the idea to pull out all the flowers around and leave only one. Half an hour later, he was able to get the image reproduced on page 238. "

A rather unethical, but effective, method. Fortunately, they will quickly develop other strategies, less traumatic for the local flora. After trying approach and hide hunting and having borrowed some recipes from entomologists, they choose to use greed to achieve their purposes. They smeared honey on some flowers. According to them, it is particularly effective in attracting Red Admirals in late autumn. They also use the "sugaring" for moths with a concoction worthy of a master alchemist! Indeed, it is composed of rum, molasses, and essence of Jargonelle pear . They daub tree trunks with it and photograph the arriving moth using a magnesium lamp.

Tricks and still lives

Despite these harmless traps, insects still stubbornly moved in all directions and some photographers chose to slow down or freeze their vibrations forever. The following words, published by William Nesbit, will make the most ethical of us shiver, but they must be considered in their historical context, nearly a century ago. "Although it is better to take pictures of insects in the wild, it remains very difficult. So, some kill them in fumes of cyanide, then spread them in a natural position. This requires, however, great experience and a lot of time. It is also possible to anesthetise with a drop of ether placed on cotton, the image being taken when the insect comes back to its senses. "

Other pioneers, fortunately, just catch them and let them calm down in small vivariums. The prize for inventiveness returns to E.O.Leighley. Here is his gentle technique to capture the transformation of a chrysalis into a butterfly. After purchasing several cocoons laid on twigs, he balances each one with a counterweight with a metal wire. When metamorphosis begins, the balance is upset and the counterweight goes up. The metal wire then gets into contact with a switch which activates a doorbell. The operator then knows that it is time for him to load a glass plate into his view camera.

The Territory of Monsters

Before the First World War, a second Macro Grand Master joined Kearton. He too will later become an expert in taking pictures of little people of the grass. His name is David Fairchild (1869-1954). The photographic choices of this American are all but pure chance: an entomologist, he worked at the ministry of Agriculture as a tropical insect pest specialist.


He took his first images in his garden, with his grand-son. It is especially his framing that is innovative as he tries to approach insects in the ways his pioneering colleagues approach large animals. The animal is not shot from above but in profile or from the front. These images have more depth and are sometimes very impressive for the general public which have never gazed directly into the eyes of a cricket, a beetle or a spider. In May 1913, a long article was published by National Geographic and a book soon followed: the Book of Monsters, which quickly ran out of print.."The Garden of Monsters" is the first book entirely devoted to the macro-photography of insects. It was.received with overwhelming success.




His technique is worth seeing. To achieve his ends, he built in his garden a sort of "Big Bertha", a square wooden gun, 5 meters long ! His wife gave him information about focusing from one end of the barrel, where there was a frosted glass pane..

At the other end of the garden, according to the indications of Madame, David moved back or forth small glass boxes in which insects were encased. He made a hit with, among others, striking images of crickets, these small creatures that had just brought  bankruptcy to many of America's Midwest cereal growers.

The pioneers of wildlife photography had opened a new world, they still had to go under the water and fly in the air with their equipment. But that is another story ...




This article is published with the kind permission of the French wildlife photography magazine Image & Nature.

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