People throughout the ages have been fascinated by the natural world. Explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt, who famously explored the natural world of South America in the late 18th century brought back conserved specimens of never seen animals and plants and even hired painters on his expeditions to preserve the scenery he was witnessing with his own eyes.
But in the mid-1800s the ancestor of our modern camera was invented. The technology spread over the next decades like wildfire. For the first time in history, one could freeze a moment in time. Photography was born. In 1872 a boy in the English countryside was born that later on, showed the world animals and habitats only a few people have seen before. Someone called Cherry Kearton, the man who invented Wildlife Photography.
Cherry Kearton (1871-1940) is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of modern wildlife photography. Although not many people are aware of his work and heritage, his adventures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries remain remarkable. Along with his brother Richard, he published the very first dedicated wildlife photography book in 1898 called ‘Birds Nests and Eggs and Eggs-Collecting’.
Cherry and his brother Richard Kearton went to great lengths to photograph nesting birds in their British home country. The Keartons prepared a stuffed Ox as a photography hide. Hollow inside, with a small opening in the front of the Ox for their camera, they were hiding inside up to eight hours for their photographic opportunity. Their persistence was eventually rewarded with the first photographs ever of nesting birds. Cherry and Richard soon realised the cameras potential to reveal the secrets of the natural world.
The Adventures Begin
In the early 20th century Cherry started to travel around the globe with the mission to photograph and later also film wild animals.
In his book ‘Photographing Wildlife Across the World’ published first in 1913, he described vividly the countless adventures he had while travelling the world. Whether he joined the Masaai Warriors for a traditional lion hunt with spears, getting almost killed by a furious rhino while tracking a pride of lions on foot, or surviving the hardships he had to endure in the jungle of Borneo, Cherry was a jack of all trades. Burning with curiosity and passion for the natural world, he was determined to bring back photographs of wild animals, no matter how challenging his expeditions turned out to be.
But back then travelling lacked the comfort we enjoy today. Getting from Britain to East Africa wasn’t a matter of hours as it is nowadays with modern planes, but rather an affair of weeks by ship.
En Route to Kenya
And so he joined the S.S Bardistan on March 27th, 1909 en route to Mombasa, Kenya. Departing from Britain, the S.S Bardistan made its way through the rough Bay of Biscay, across the Mediterranean Sea, through the canal of Suez, and finally along the coast of Eastern Africa. It was an early morning in May 1909 when Kearton eventually arrived in Mombasa. Or as he called it: ‘the eastern door of the Dark Continent.’ Once in Mombasa, Cherry described in his diary the comforts of British colonialism: Ice for beverages at the hotel bars, good lager beer and ‘moderately good food which, as is always the case in East Africa, has a curious sameness of flavour’. But the cold beer wasn’t why he came all the way from Britain to Kenya. Cherry Kearton couldn not wait to set up his 70-pound glass plate camera in lion territory, far away from self-indulgent British colonialists.
Wildlife Photography in 1909
On the next morning, he joined a train to Nairobi. A 23-hour journey that covered 127 miles through a spectacular wildlife area: Tsavo. Kearton described the scenery that moved slowly past him as ‘natures zoo.’ Wildlife was abundant. Lions, Eland Antelope, Rhino, countless Zebra and Wildebeest. As a wildlife photographer, he was living the dream. Based in Nairobi, Kearton wandered on foot, accompanied by an array of guides, carriers, and a chef, into the East African hinterland, finally wanting to photograph the iconic African fauna.
With the help of native Maasai Warriors, he was able to sneak up on Hippos, Crocodiles, Antelope and Lion, always lugging around his large glass-plate camera. While stumbling through the African bush not every encounter with big game was as peaceful as he had wished for. The, back then, abundant rhino was an obstacle on a regular basis for Cherry and his crew. Known for their notoriously bad temper Black Rhinos will sometimes aggressively charge anything that is near them.
Hunting with a Camera
Although Cherry Kearton found himself in many hairy circumstances, he would always do his hunting with his camera instead of a rifle. While many of his countrymen arrived on the African shores to hunt the Big Five and countless other African species for fun, Cherry was aware of the senseless destruction that they caused.
‘The killing of game for food is always justifiable; but shooting merely for the joy of destruction, or the purpose of writing a book and so securing self-advertisement, can never be defended. Without boasting unduly, I may say that the naturalist photographer usually takes infinitely greater risks, and certainly displays infinitely greater skill and patience, than does the pseudo-sportsman. It is much easier, much less dangerous, to shoot a lion after your boys have led you up to him and your white hunter- who is by your side ready for emergencies – has given you explicit instructions, than it is to creep close to that lion and take a moving picture of him.’
Devoted To The Natural World
Cherry Kearton lived for wildlife. He continued following his passion for wildlife, photography and filmmaking. Soon he starred in his own movies such as ‘With Cherry Kearton in the Jungle’ (1926), ‘Life in the Sudan’ (1925) and many more. In bringing home footage and photographs of distant lands, Cherry Kearton was feeding the imagination of a new generation of wildlife photographers and filmmakers.