Archive for November 2019

New Book About George Shiras III Is a Triumphant Look at Man Who Changed Wildlife Conservation and Photography

November 26, 2019

James H. McCommons’ new biography, Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography, is a stunning look at a man who helped to change the world through his use of photography and his belief in wildlife conservation. This biography is long overdue and has been splendidly assembled by McCommons, who looks at all aspects of Shiras’ life from his family background, to his personal and family life, his political efforts, his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, his conservation efforts, and perhaps most importantly, his groundbreaking efforts to photograph wildlife, which eventually led to developing National Geographic into the magazine it is today.

While I felt I already knew a lot about Shiras from having read his biography of his father, George Shiras II, who was a US Supreme Court Justice, and his famous book Hunting Wild Life with Camera and Flashlight, I was impressed by McCommons’ extensive research into Shiras’ life. McCommons not only teaches us about Shiras but about the political and social climate of the time and how Shiras was both affected by it and was an influencer of it.

While one cannot deny the importance of Shiras as a wildlife photographer, having taken the first nighttime photographs of wildlife and taken some of the first photographs of wildlife in their natural environment, I was most interested in Shiras’ role in creating legislation to help protect wildlife, specifically through the waterfowl bill he got passed in Congress. We also learn a lot about his conservation efforts and how he worked with others like Roosevelt to protect wildlife nationally and even throughout North America.

McCommons’ substantial research informs every chapter. For example, as an author of a historical novel about the Roosevelt Libel Trial that took place in Marquette in 1913, during which time Roosevelt stayed in Shiras’ home, I was impressed by some of the details McCommons presented that I had not heard before that he gathered from many newspapers across the country.

Of course, all the details are also here about Shiras’ photographic processes. McCommons communicated with the descendants of John Hammer, Shiras’ right-hand man, to shed additional information on their mutual efforts. We also learn about Shiras’ excursions to places like Panama and Alaska to take photographs, often under difficult conditions.

Personal aspects of Shiras’ life explored in the book include his relationship with his father; the loss of his son, George Shiras IV; his relationship with his father-in-law, Peter White; and his personal friendship with Roosevelt. Finally, we learn what a wonderful benefactor he was to Marquette, Michigan, deeding land for Shiras Park, beginning the Shiras Zoo at Presque Isle Park, and establishing the Shiras Institute, which funded the Shiras Planetarium.

Anyone interested in wildlife photography, National Geographic, conservation, Theodore Roosevelt, or the history of Upper Michigan will enjoy this book and come away with an enriched understanding of both Shiras and his times.