The first man to hunt wildlife with a camera, not a rifle

The first man to hunt wildlife with a camera, not a rifle

Cherry Kearton popularised nature like a Victorian David Attenborough – using bold techniques to get close to his subjects, as a new exhibition shows

In 1909 two wildlife safari expeditions arrived by ship in Mombasa, Kenya, within days of each other. One party was enormous and led by the adventure-loving US president Teddy Roosevelt; the other consisted of just two men and was headed by Cherry Kearton, a young British bird photographer from Yorkshire.

Over several months on safari the trigger-happy president and his son Kermit killed 17 lions, 11 elephants, 20 rhino, nine giraffes, 19 zebra, more than 400 hippos, hyena and other large animals, as well as many thousands of birds and smaller animals. By contrast Kearton, the first man in the world to hunt with a camera and not a rifle, killed just one animal, in self-defence.

Rhino taken with flashlight

Rhino taken with flashlight, 1909-12 from the forthcoming exhibition With Nature and a Camera, on pioneering wildlife photographer Cherry Kearton. Photograph: Courtesy of With Nature and a Camera

The two men came from different social worlds and had contrasting visions of the importance of wildlife. Roosevelt justified his massacres by saying he killed for science and education; Kearton was not against shooting “for the pot” but said he took pictures for the love of it. But when they met in the Kenyan bush, they struck up an unlikely friendship, with the president letting the photographer capture unique film of him setting out on one of his bloodbaths.

The footage was poor quality but it earned Kearton enough to set up with his brother Richard a London film studio that gave birth to the world’s first wildlife documentary films – now a staple of TV, and possibly the single most important medium today for people to appreciate nature.

Kearton’s work as a pioneer of nature photography will be celebrated later this month in a small exhibition that will show 37 of his “lost” pictures of lions, leopards, rhino and other wildlife discovered in an old desk last year by his great-granddaughter Evie Bulmer, as well as 30 minutes of cine-film that he shot in Africa and is now held by the British Film Institute.

Kearton called Roosevelt “a dear friend” but was appalled by his hunting. He wrote later: “[T]o help in the least degree to accomplish the extinction of anything beautiful and interesting is a crime against future generations … Unfortunately, this is a crime that we have all been complicit in committing.

“It is as a naturalist that I view the wanton slaughter of game with such abhorrence … I raise my voice with all its force against the wicked and wanton destruction of big game.”