The man who taught the world how to watch birds loved taking pictures of them more than anything
By Douglas Carlson | Published: 7/1/2008
The Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, holds more than 180,000 Peterson transparencies as well as yet uncounted black-and-white prints and negatives. Many times the 20th century’s best known field-guide author proudly acknowledged his obsession with birds, but such a photography collection indicates that picture taking had a powerful hold on him as well. For him, photography was a sport that provided an escape, freedom from the tyranny of field-guide deadlines. And eventually during his later years, it overtook birdwatching as his most desired pastime.
In his often-autobiographical 1948 book, Birds Over America, Peterson described his early passion for birds: “In my teens, the mere glimpse of a bird would change my listlessness to fierce intensity. I lived for birds. It was exciting just to see them move, to watch them fly. There was nothing thoughtful or academic in my interest; it was so spontaneous that I couldn’t explain it.”
Such a powerful yearning would naturally find expression in any form it could. And the relatively new medium of photography was a perfect vehicle, a technology that could generate tangible symbols of his fixation.
It was a primitive technology by today’s standards, to be sure. Peterson’s first camera, which he bought around 1921, was a Kodak Premo Number 9, a drop-bed-view camera that used four-by-five-inch glass plate negatives. Its viewfinder was on the top, and it had an expandable bellows that opened when the front of the camera was lowered. It could be held by hand but was normally used with a tripod. Not only was the camera awkward, but the process of taking photographs required quite a commitment.
Peterson left a visual picture in his bird diary: a gangly 15-year-old lugging camera, tripod, glass plates, and seed through the snow to a feeder in the woods, then filling the feeder, pointing the camera at it, tying a string to the shutter, waiting behind a snow bank for a bird to show up, pulling the string, hoping.
The joy of discovery
Peterson’s goal was to collect as many bird images as possible. In Birds Over America, he relates his early preoccupations: “During the first years it was the joy of discovery. Then it became a competitive game, to see how many birds I could identify in a day, to discover rare birds, or to record a bird a day or two earlier in the spring than anyone else, or a day or two later in the fall.” And when he wasn’t racing around making bird lists, he was stocking feeders, staking out songbird nests, stalking ducks – anything to expose more glass plates and print photos that he would pore over at night and exchange with a network of fellow teenagers from around the country who shared his obsession.
Peterson’s relationship with photography changed as he grew older and as the technology changed. While his passion and obsession were lifelong, he began to add other dimensions to his photography. At age 18, he left home in Jamestown to attend art school in New York City, and around this time he bought a Revolving Back Auto Graflex camera. Chiding friends said it was large enough to use as a darkroom, but it offered features that enhanced his bird photography many times over. Exposures could be made at one-thousandth of a second — quick enough for birds in flight — and a reflex focusing system allowed him to compose a shot before he exposed it. He soon added an automatic flash for small songbirds as well.
With the more versatile camera came a new emphasis. Peterson described his birding at that time as taking an academic turn; he had begun to realize that his appreciation for birds deepened the more he learned about them. Similarly, his photography took on more substance. Coming under the influence of such bird photographers as Eric Hosking and Arthur Allen, he consciously used his photographs to document bird behavior. And along with Hosking and Allan Cruickshank, he began to produce bird portraits in direct light and in great detail.
Further, he began to see that the hard work of obtaining a good photograph amounted to a learning experience. In his introduction to Hosking’s autobiographyA Passion for Birds (1979), Peterson praised Hosking as a field ornithologist: “Long hours in the hide [blind] have given him insights into the behavior of many species that escape the watcher with the binoculars.”
By mid-century, the new field of bird photography was emerging, and it was said that Hosking was the first to make a living specializing in photographing birds. Early Hosking innovations included the 1930s use of non-synchronized flash exposures to photograph owls at their nests and a photoelectric shutter release to capture birds in flight.
Meanwhile in the United Sates, Arthur Allen, Cornell University’s first professor of ornithology, pioneered bird photography in the 1920s, and although he extended his interests to include motion-picture photography and sound recording, he continued to publish his bird photographs throughout his life, notably in more than 20 articles in National Geographic magazine.
The National Audubon Society’s contribution to this fresh form was Cruickshank, who, with Peterson, was a member of the Bronx County Bird Club, a small group of young men who birded the New York City area relentlessly. Cruickshank and Peterson joined the Audubon staff in 1934, Cruickshank as a lecturer in the educational program and Peterson as educational director and art director of Bird-Lore magazine, the predecessor of Audubon.
“Cruicky” spent most of his career with the society and nearly achieved his goal of photographing — without the benefit of today’s long lenses and motor drives — every North American species. Of his friend’s work, Peterson wrote, “He was the best black-and-white wildlife photographer of his generation, to be compared only with Eric Hosking of England.” (Read more about Hosking, Allen, and Cruickshank below.)
Peterson could lay claim to membership in this elite group by combining his thorough understanding of birds with his formal art training and by learning to direct the uncontrolled passion of his youth in the direction of the expressive possibilities of photography. As he wrote in Birds Over America, “The important thing for me is not simply to record a bird on film, but to be an artist about it, to achieve good composition and proper balance of values, and, if possible, to catch a bit of the emotional quality that is essential to a good picture.”
Wild America on film
By the 1950s, Peterson, already famous due to the success of his field guides, had become a regular on the Audubon Screen Tours, a tremendously popular lecture series that featured eminent naturalists narrating nature films in large- and small-town venues. When he began lecturing, he was hampered by a spliced version of someone else’s footage. So he put aside still photography and became a filmmaker, producing Wild America in 1953, a film record of a transcontinental birding trip that became a best-selling book of the same title two years later. By today’s standards, the film is little better than a home movie, but at the time, a full-color, 90-minute nature film was groundbreaking.
When Peterson returned to still photography in earnest, new technology in lenses and color film broadened considerably the artistic element of his work. He remained the ardent photographer of his youth, shooting what he called “an appalling amount of film.” But when he took his transparencies to his light table to choose the best, his art training came into play, and more pictorial than documentary results began to appear in publication. Among them was his 1971 article in International Wildlife, “How I Photographed All the Flamingos of the World.”
An artist’s eye
And while he continued to make images for use as “memory jogs” for his painting and writing, he was clearly more interested in the aesthetic views of bird photography, which he enumerated in his introduction to photographer Russ Kinne’s The Complete Book of Nature Photography (1962): “composition, attractive pattern and values of light and shade, originality of concept and, when it can be achieved, emotional quality.”
You only need to glance at Peterson’s striking photographic work in Penguins(1979) and the retrospective Roger Tory Peterson: The Art and Photography of the World’s Foremost Birder (1994) to appreciate his artistic eye.
It was the introduction of motor drives and auto-focus lenses that took his photography to new heights during his later years. Still absorbed with the enthusiasm and wonder of a teenager smitten with birds, he traveled at an almost frenetic pace with his cameras, returning to his studio with prodigious numbers of images. They came to represent the good times, time spent in the company of birds and away from work on his field guides. The popularity of his books enabled his photography by granting him the necessary fame and wealth, but he grew to detest field-guide work, saying it “imprisoned” him and calling photography his “therapy.”
Ultimately, whether for escape or publication, education or sport, bird photography for Peterson was more than just a way to capture the image of his lifelong obsession. It represented an almost spiritual engagement with birds that demanded guidelines to establish mutuality with and respect for the photographer’s subject. Peterson’s photographic ethic, as he expressed it while working at the National Audubon Society, approved of techniques – feeding ducks and songbirds, for example, or building decoys – that would allow birds to act freely, but he discouraged such common intrusions as moving nests or restraining raptors. In general terms, however, Peterson’s principles were based on his fundamental biocentric belief that birds and other animals were not simply extensions of human existence but individuals with unique lives and equal rights.
His photographic ethic was part of an environmentalist’s sensibility within an overarching humane moral code. As he said in a speech in 1974, all such points of view are “overlapping and interlocking. All are essential to a better and more civilized world. It is a matter of attitudes — a reverence for life — all life.”
Douglas Carlson is editorial assistant for the Georgia Review and author of Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography (University of Texas Press, 2007).
Peterson contemporaries revealed the world of birds
Early bird photographers whom Roger Tory Peterson admired included Eric Hosking, Arthur Allen, and Allan Cruickshank.
Hosking was Britain’s top bird photographer for more than 60 years. His photos of Barn Owls in flight carrying mice, avocets on a nest, and many more gained a wide following. Always enthusiastic, Hosking gave more than 1,500 lectures about birds and published many books.
Allen was one of the first American ornithology professors. As director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, he used his talents as a teacher, writer, photographer, and filmmaker to popularize the study of birds. His 1951 bookStalking Birds with Color Camera was a huge hit.
Cruickshank was one of the National Audubon Society’s most popular lecturers. He delivered almost 6,000 talks about birds and conservation to a combined audience of nearly three million people. Later he helped establish Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. His books include Hunting with the Camera and Wings in the Wilderness.