Notes from William Brewster: Trials in Wildlife Photography

This post is part of a series on the collection of ornithologist William Brewster (1851-1919) at the Ernst Mayr Library, written by Elizabeth Meyer, Library Project Assistant.

In the mid-1890s, Brewster’s journals increasingly reference using new methods of data collection. Though he continued to collect specimens on a smaller scale, with focus shifted from birds to their nests and eggs, his journals show that he began to use his gun more for securing dinner than for data collection. He started to bring field glasses (binoculars) and a boxy Kodak camera on his excursions.

Setting up photographs in the field was challenging. Sometimes a bit of prep work helped, such as thinning the foliage in backcountry areas: “I spent the day ashore taking a walk through the wood road in the forenoon with camera & hatchet selecting & cutting out spots for photographing later.” (Sunshine, Deer Island, Maine. June 26, 1896.)

Opportunistic shots of live animals were even trickier, but once in a while he managed to get some good shots. 


Sepia-toned photo of a porcupine on a tree branch.

In the afternoon we tried to photograph a Porcupine which Watrous caught... & brought in yesterday. It proved a difficult task for the light was poor & the brute found as stubborn as a mule marching off steadily like a big mud turtle when left for a moment on the ground and when driven up a tree moping or thrashing his tail viciously starting to climb a little higher just after I had focused him and was about to expose the plate. I got one or two fair negatives, however. (Lake Umbagog, Maine, May 21 1896.)

(Sympathies to the very stressed-out porcupine...though it’s impressive that the assistant was able to catch it and bring it back to their campsite.)    


Four sepia-toned photographs of a nuthatch perched on a tree trunk, with varying focus and clarity.

The rest of the forenoon was devoted to the Nuthatch's nest found yesterday... Jim had put up a board on the side of a birch about 2 ft. from the [nest] hole and on this board I adjusted my camera and snapped at the male Nuthatch when he came with food for his mate.

I made six or eight exposures with fair success but I should have done better had the board been placed 8 or 10 feet from the hole for the bird was never quite still and I could not give time enough to get clearness of definition and firmness of outline. This was proved by the fact that all the impressions of the bird are thin and a trifle vague while some of them have blurred outlines whereas the white bark took perfectly.

I got one picture of the female as she was clinging to the stub just before entering the hole. This was a difficult task for she usually flew in, without so much as touching her feet to the edge of the hole.The male fed her at intervals of from 10 to 30 minutes and once twice within 5 minutes. He usually brought what looked like small larvae held lengthwise in his bill. Pretty, interesting little creatures these Canada Nuthatches! (Lake Umbagog, Maine. May 25, 1896)

 Water Thrush

Sepia-toned photo looking down at a small bird sitting in a nest.

I spent most of the forenoon at Leonard's Pond where I took eight photographs of the Water Thrush at or near her nest from which I started her many times. She is wonderfully mild and patient under this almost incessant persecution. Not once this morning did she chirp for her mate or make any demonstration whatever. I had no difficulty in setting up my camera & focusing on the nest at a distance of three feet or less. Indeed when I wished to start her I usually had to shake the focusing cloth [cloth placed over the rear of camera and photographer’s head] within a few inches of her face. Then she would slip off, run away a few yards, feed for a moment or perhaps take a bath and within a minute or two, if I permitted it, walk sedately into her nest often passing directly under the camera on her way. When I wished to get her to cross a certain selected spot of sunlight I had little difficulty in driving her over the exact place. She would often pause for a moment almost at my feet and look up at me with an expression of wonderment but without the slightest sign of fear.

Poor, demure little creature! She has learned that my intentions, if somewhat of a mystery, are at least harmless, and she may well trust me, too, for were her nest the only one that I have ever found or expected to find nothing would induce me to molest [collect] it now. The four pretty eggs look as if they might hatch at any moment. (Lake Umbagog, Maine. June 5, 1896) [Edited with line breaks and punctuation for readability.]


About a mile above the Forks we came suddenly on a Deer, a yearling buck with small knobs indicating the coming horns. It was standing well out in the open meadow but near a cluster of bushes, looking at us intently. We stopped paddling & ran the bow of the boat into a little nook when the Deer advanced at a fast walk coming within less than 20 yds. [yards] before stopping for another stare.

 I got out my camera & snapped four times (spoiling one plate by an accident). Of course I supposed that each chance would be the last for I was standing up in the boat with nothing between me & the Deer but a few dead sticks & the animal looked as it might run at any moment.

 But I might have put up my tripod & focussed[sic] for a sure picture for after using the last plate I stepped ashore & actually walked several yards towards the Deer before it finally took alarm & loped off into the woods. It was very thin & and had much of the long hair of the winter pelage clinging in tufts or patches to the back & hips. It looked nearly as red as a Fox.

On our return we saw a large doe feeding near the same part of the meadow but she was very shy starting at 200 yards distance & running at full speed across the meadow - a beautiful sight.   How unlike that of any other animal is the gait of a Deer when thoroughly alarmed. As this doe sailed across the green level with long, strongly-arched bounds I could compare her to nothing but a leaping porpoise. At the highest point of each curve her belly must have been at least 5 feet above the grass. (Cambridge River, Lake Umbagog, Maine. June 12, 1896.) [Edited with line breaks and punctuation for readability.]

Possibly none of these hand-held photos developed to Brewster’s satisfaction, because there are no deer photos affixed to neighboring pages in the journal (as the other photos in this post were). But at least we have his descriptive impressions and his documentation of the photographic process--or his attempt, any way.

It’s worth noting here that Brewster often had support from Robert Gilbert, a field assistant and friend who was skilled at both photography and bird identification. He is not referenced in these passages; he was hired by Brewster at the age for 27, around 1896-1897, so it’s possible that he was just not present yet. If you’re interested in reading some historical detective-work about Gilbert, an early African American nature photographer, it's the subject of a book, ‘Looking for Mr. Gilbert’ by John Hanson Mitchell.