Monday, February 27, 2012

Do you ever grow weary of lugging photographic gear around....?

Well, if you do, think what it must have been like for the Kearton brothers, Richard (1862-1928) and Cherry (1871-1940), who were pioneers of bird photography at the end of the 19th. century and in the early years of the 20th. century. If you ever come across a copy of Wild Life at Home by Richard Kearton, snap it up because it gives a wonderful insight into the energy, ingenuity and sometimes sheer bravery of these early bird photographers. Using unwiedy, heavy mahogany and brass cameras and glass plates, stout wooden tripods and sometimes magnesium flash powder that could set your moustache on fire, they went to enormous lengths to capture the beauty of Britain's birds life for the Victorian and Edwardian public.... and became the celebrity wildlife photographers of their day.

This copy of Wild Life at Home dates 1907, although the book was first published in 1898. Like many natural history books of the period, it's notable for the beautiful gilt embossed cover. 

Elder brother Richard eventually became principally the researcher and writer for their popular books, while Cherry travelled widely overseas and went on to become a celebrated cinematographer, lecturer and broadcaster. 

In Wild Life at Home Richard reveals the hard-won secrets of their success. This is their recommended technique for photographing sea birds on inaccessible cliff ledges, as used in their pioneering photographs of sea birds on St. Kilda.

Here's how to scale a tree with your camera and tripod. No big telephotos and zoom lenses then.

The Kearton brothers were born in Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales and used the field craft they'd learned in their rural youth to get within flash powder distance of shy birds. Here's one of them (Richard, I think) lurking in a bush...

.... and here he is demonstrating how much less visible you are if you wear his recommended tree-trunk mask. Why not give it a try? 

The Keartons pioneered the use of hides that are still essential lurking gear for the serious bird photographer. One of the brothers is inside this artificial farmyard rubbish heap that could be moved around the farm on wheels ...

...... and there's a Kearton inside this stuffed sheep  .....

..... and inside this stuffed ox .... 

... although things didn't always go quite as they'd planned. Here's Richard trapped inside the ox after it toppled over ... soon to be rescued by his brother, but not before Cherry had recorded the mishap for posterity.


  1. Wonderful post. The tumbled up stuffed ox shot is hilarious!

  2. Great post.:-)
    Not so sure it would be wise to 'lurk' in the bushes in the local parks these days!
    I love books from years gone by.

  3. True masters of their craft.
    Looks an interesting book; I'll check out Amazon.
    Love that last shot.

  4. Thank you for this. I love the streak of insanity exhibited by the Kearton brothers.

  5. Difficult to imagine lugging a full or half plate camera around. A truly dedicated pair. I wonder how often the flash powder set fire to their home made hides.

    Keith: Several copies on Amazon.

  6. Hi Africa, Cherry Kearton had a reputation for being something of a showman, so I sometimes wonder if that shot was staged. Even if it was, though, the certainly had a sense of fun and adventure!

  7. Hi Brian, lurking in the shrubberies wearing one of those tree masks would be certain to land you in trouble these days! There's a lot of interesting stuff in old natural history boos, isn't there?

  8. Hi Keith, last time I looked on the Abe books secondhand books site there were a few copies for less than a fiver...

  9. They really enjoyed their work, didn't they Adrian?

  10. They couldn't be as gung-ho when taking pictures as we are in this digital age either, with 500+ exposures on a memory card, could they John? Once they'd used up their handful of glass plates, that was it for the day.

  11. Goodness, what extraordinary lengths they went to, to get some shots.

    Hmm, I see Blogger has changed again...

  12. They must have had amazing patience too, toffeeapple...


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