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First National Geographic Wildlife Photos

In 1905, George Shiras III was serving one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, a stint he agreed to in order to help a reform movement in his native Pennsylvania.

Photo: Wildlife at Night
Photograph by George Shiras

A member of the Public Lands Committee, his work eventually led to the establishment of Olympic National Monument and Petrified Forest National Monument and the extension of Yellowstone National Park. In 1904 he introduced the legislation that would eventually become the Migratory Bird Bill of 1913.

These conservation efforts won Shiras the personal congratulations of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, but it was Shiras's skills as a wildlife photographer that caught the eye of Gil Grosvenor, Director and Editor of the National Geographic Society and its magazine.

In late 1905, Grosvenor invited Shiras over to Hubbard Memorial Hall, the Society's headquarters, to have a look at the naturalist's wildlife photographs, which had won some impressive prizes. Shiras arrived with a box full of prints, hoping the editor might be able to use a few. He left surprised and delighted, for Grosvenor wanted to publish nearly all of them.

True to his word, Grosvenor printed 74 of Shiras's pictures in the July 1906 edition of the magazine, a single-article issue titled "Hunting Wild Game With Flashlight and Camera." Many years later, Grosvenor recalled it as "one of the pioneering achievements of the National Geographic. ... It was an extraordinarily educative series: Nobody had ever seen pictures like that of wild animals. ... I can't exaggerate the enthusiasm with which they were received by our members."

The issue was so popular that it was reprinted two years later, one of only two National Geographic issues to have been reprinted to this day.

Photo Fallout

Not everyone on the National Geographic Board of Managers was so pleased, however, especially the professional geographers already dubious of Grosvenor's strategy of using National Geographic to popularize geography. Alfred H. Brooks, the geologist after whom the Brooks Range in Alaska is named, deplored that the magazine was becoming merely "a picture gallery" and summarily resigned. Another member followed later that year.

Shiras and the National Geographic Society continued their association for years, however, and in 1911 Grosvenor named Shiras himself to the Board of Managers. National Geographic magazine continued to feature wildlife photography, which quickly became a hallmark of the publication.

President Roosevelt, for his part, was so impressed by the July 1906 issue that he wrote a congratulatory note to Grosvenor and implored Shiras to write a "big book" with his photos and notes of wildlife—which he did, nearly 30 years later. Hunting Wild Life With Camera and Flashlight was published by National Geographic in 1935.

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