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 comm