Historic Camera on Display in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall
by AMNH on
Eminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman began his 54-year career at the Museum in 1888.
An avid birder from boyhood, Chapman went on to become an influential advocate for conservation, even helping persuade President Theodore Roosevelt, a friend and fellow bird-lover, to designate the first federal bird reserve at Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903.
Chapman’s message of conservation was amplified by his pioneering use of photography and other visual images. An early and enthusiastic nature photographer—the first Kodak camera came to market only in 1888—Chapman owned an assortment of cameras, including the 5x7 Graflex original now on display in the reopened Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.
Chapman took several cameras into the field, ingeniously adapting them to his needs. To get the camera closer to skittish birds, he rigged up a remote shutter release using a bicycle pump. He devised trip-wires that took photos of animals as they passed by and experimented with different photo blinds–even tying a camera to an umbrella suspended 12 feet in the air to film nesting Spoonbills—to create what he called his “cloak of invisibility” to study “animals in their native haunts…under absolutely natural conditions.”
Sharing such scenes broadly, Chapman believed, was an effective way to draw attention to nature and conservation. In addition to photos, he used lantern slides and motion pictures to bring birds to vivid life in his publications and lectures.
Not surprisingly, Chapman also embraced moviemaking. As early as 1908, he filmed Brown Pelicans in southern Florida. On January 1, 1909, he held the Museum’s first screening of a motion picture, in connection with a lecture on Florida bird life.
At the Museum, he led the development of “habitat group” exhibits; to prepare for the 1902 opening of the original Hall of North American Birds—the first museum hall in the world dedicated to habitat dioramas—he traveled some 90,000 miles around the continent with a team of artists and taxidermists to gather specimens, take photos, and record details about habitat and animal behavior.
Learn more about Chapman’s friendship with Theodore Roosevelt in the newly restored Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.
A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.