By Kristi Evans
It was during a family vacation to the Upper Peninsula in the 1990s, before he moved to Marquette to teach journalism at Northern, that James McCommons was introduced to the groundbreaking wildlife photography of George Shiras III.
While browsing the nature section of a bookstore in Munising, McCommons became intrigued with a hefty, two-volume set titled Hunting Wild Life with Camera and Flashlight. Beneath its “rather plain cover” was a trove of more than 950 photographs Shiras had taken over 65 years of traversing the woods and waters of North America. McCommons recognized several iconic U.P. locations as he leafed through the pages of “Volume I, Lake Superior Region.”
Some of the images were captured with Shiras’ crude flash technique. It was inspired by an Ojibway “fire hunting” or “jacklighting” practice—now illegal—that he and his brother learned as teenagers from Native American guide Jack LaPete of Marquette. After nightfall, LaPete would place a cast-iron skillet full of flaming pine pitch on the bow of a dugout canoe. While he paddled the perimeter of an inland lake, the boys were able to shoot deer rendered motionless by the trance-like effect of the approaching light.
Around 1890, Shiras began applying the same principle to nighttime flash photography. He teamed up with John Hammer, a Norwegian machinist who had emigrated to Marquette. Undeterred by mishaps such as clothes set on fire and singed hair, the duo fine-tuned the method for illuminating animals from a boat so they could capture images of them in their natural habitats. Shiras later pioneered a technique for taking pictures without being present. His “camera trap” invention was a primitive precursor to the modern trail cam.
McCommons described Shiras’ method as “a box camera holding a glass negative rigged to a chemical flare of magnesium and potassium chlorate powder. When a deer stumbled into a trigger wire, the shutter released and the chemicals exploded with the force of a mortar, flooding the woods with a sizzling, brilliant light. … Pictures revealed wide-eyed, startled animals, muscles tensed for flight. It was a crude setup, but one that yielded extraordinary images.”
Shiras honed his photography skills at a camp he established adjacent to Whitefish Lake, near the settlement aptly named Deerton, about a half hour east of Marquette. He had hunted and fished there as a boy on land owned by his future father-in-law, Peter White. When Shiras returned to the area during summer breaks from his careers as an attorney in his native Pennsylvania and U.S. Representative in Washington, D.C., he witnessed forests stripped down to stumps, and deer, passenger pigeon and fish populations decimated to supply metropolitan markets. This sparked his resolve to become a staunch conservation advocate.
At the Munising bookstore, McCommons, also a Pennsylvania native, returned the mint-condition volumes to the shelf; they were too expensive for his taste. But the images of animals engaged in nocturnal activities, captured via the rudimentary measures employed by a determined hobbyist, had piqued his curiosity about the author.
His motivation to delve deeper only escalated after he moved to Marquette in 2001 and discovered a number of locations named in honor of Shiras: a lake-fed swimming pool at Presque Isle; a park overlooking Picnic Rocks; a high school planetarium; a housing development on the south side; a municipal power plant; and a room in the public library that displays Shiras’ nature book collection and deer photographs. McCommons also attended a presentation on Shiras’ work by Jack Deo ’75 BS, photographer and founder of the Superior View historical photo collection, who has been passionate about promoting the Shiras legacy.
What began as casual curiosity morphed into a nine-year research and writing project, as McCommons set out to complete a definitive biography of the man he believed warranted more attention and received far too little credit for his impressive accomplishments. Very little had been written about Shiras up to that point. McCommons’ book, Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography, was published in October.
“I came to understand that George Shiras 3d (he preferred the lawyerly 3d to III) was a seminal player in the early conservation movement and a naturalist of national reputation,” McCommons wrote in the preface. “He was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt and one of the Progressives in the early twentieth century who saved several species of wildlife. As a congressional representative, Shiras introduced and established the legal foundations for the bill that became the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most important environmental law for the preservation of wildlife prior to the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.”
National Geographic, once largely a text publication, featured an article on Shiras’ evolving photographic technique and showcased 70 of his images—deer leaping, a beaver gnawing on a tree trunk, raccoons scavenging, and other animals—in its July 1906 edition.
It was the magazine’s first foray into wildlife photography. Two board members, reportedly concerned it would devolve into a “picture book,” resigned in disgust. Shiras served as a contributor to the magazine and later joined the board of the National Geographic Society, a position he held for 30 years.
On one of three trips to Yellowstone National Park, Shiras and Hammer spotted moose tracks on the shore as they were traveling partway up the arm of Yellowstone Lake. They were charged by a grizzly and also contended with a broken boat, which thwarted further exploration. When they returned a year later, the men saw hundreds of moose in a valley from an overlook deep within the park. This was significant, as moose were thought to be absent from the Rockies south of Canada.
The moose looked slightly different than those Shiras had known in eastern Canada. After consulting with biologists in Washington, D.C., he financed an expedition to have two ranchers in the Teton Valley shoot two of the animals and transported them by train back to the nation’s capital. The U.S. Biological Survey, the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, determined the specimens were a separate subspecies and gave it the scientific name of Alces Americanus shirasi—more commonly known today as the Shiras moose.
Longtime friend Teddy Roosevelt implored Shiras to write a book showcasing his revolutionary images, field observations and conservation principles. Roosevelt died a decade before Shiras embarked on the effort. Like McCommons’ book, his was a multi-year endeavor. Hunting Wild Life with Camera and Flashlight was finally published by the National Geographic Society in 1935.
As part of his research, McCommons traveled to the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. In 1905, Gilbert Grosvenor, the magazine’s editor, had attended a Shiras presentation at the Boone and Crockett Club—Roosevelt was a founding member—and asked Shiras to bring his photos to the office. The men exchanged multiple memos and letters over the year. McCommons reviewed their correspondence. He also visited several other locations, including the Library of Congress; Yale University; the archives at Yellowstone National Park; the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; Ormond Beach in Florida, where Shiras had a winter home and frequently engaged in birding; and Pittsburgh, where Shiras’ papers were stored in a warehouse.
Ironically, on a return trip to Pittsburgh, McCommons learned that the three cardboard boxes holding an unfinished Shiras autobiography, letters and scrapbooks were no longer there. Because of his interest in the materials, the University of Pittsburgh library had gifted them to Northern Michigan University. McCommons said he appreciated having them in close proximity to aid his research.
“I went through a lot of historical documents in putting this book together, but one thing lacking is personal anecdotes from people who knew him,” McCommons said. “It would have been nice to get more information on the kind of person he was. An ornithologist wrote a wonderful piece about visiting Shiras while he was wintering in Florida. It seemed like he was a sweet, gentle guy, yet pretty fearless, based on his many expeditions into difficulty country.”
McCommons wrote that it was the Upper Peninsula, and especially the camp near Whitefish Lake and a winding stretch of the Laughing Whitefish River, that served as Shiras’ “touchstone, the place where he formed his love for wildlife and expressed his passion for photography and wild country.” After his wife’s death, he returned to Marquette as a permanent resident. He died in 1942 and was buried in the city’s Park Cemetery.
Many years later, in 2005, a female moose took up temporary residence in the cemetery. Some of the residents who flocked there to catch a glimpse of the cow nicknamed her “Lily” because of her propensity for emerging from the woods each evening to feed on lily pads in a pond. McCommons was there one night and said he watched the moose saunter across Shiras’ grave. “I couldn’t help but think how appropriate that seemed, and how much he would have loved that,” he added.
It is also appropriate that McCommons received NMU’s Peter White Scholar Award to support his work on the book. The award was funded with seed money from White’s daughter, and Shiras’ wife, Frances (“Fannie”).
McCommons said Shiras’ most impactful contribution may have come through encouraging sportsmen to appreciate animals and their natural environment through the lens of a camera. His innovative photography foreshadowed how many present-day hunters and biologists, as well as camp and home owners, routinely monitor wildlife activity.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that George Shiras III was the father of the modern trail cam,” McCommons said. “He always thought his camera trap could be used as tool for measuring and identifying animals in their natural habitat; people don’t need to be near them. He could not have imagined the kind of technology available for that purpose today.”
Despite major advances in photography equipment, as demonstrated by the stunning wildlife images now routinely featured in National Geographic, Shiras’ work is still celebrated. NMU’s DeVos Art Museum, which houses a number of his early images in its permanent collection, loaned some prints to a 2015-16 exhibition at the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris.
But Shiras’ pioneering work in photography often overshadows the legislation he introduced that, according to the Audubon Society, remains the primary tool for protecting non-endangered species—in this case, almost all native birds, along with their nests and eggs. Shiras first raised the concept of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Congress, worked for its passage as a lobbyist, and put his expertise as an attorney to work establishing the legal foundation for the law. He even helped the U.S. Attorney General write the Supreme Court briefs to defend the law in a 1920 landmark case challenging its constitutionality.
His legacy continues to illuminate our natural world.