Upper Peninsula has photographic heritage

A great blue heron is pictured. (Photo courtesy of Steve Lindberg)

The rest of the world might not appreciate the role that the Upper Peninsula innovators have played in the history of photography. Our region has been an important frontier of photography as an art for over a century. The reasons why are obvious to anyone who lives here. Access to wilderness and wildlife is easy, colorful birds abound, our buildings have character, and there’s often a jewel-like quality to the light, maybe due to the swaths of green and blue and white that make up our landscape.

It’s hard to not want to show off how pretty it is up here through pictures. The drive to visually represent our unique northern paradise has inspired generations of photographic pioneers. It’s part of our artistic history, a meaningful piece of our aesthetic heritage that continues to this day.

After the Civil War, a musically and artistically talented 25-year-old veteran of the 2nd Vermont Infantry Regimental Band named B.F. Childs came to the Upper Peninsula. He first arrived in Houghton in 1867-1868 and moved to Marquette by 1871, where he operated a photography studio. In the early 1870s, Childs sailed the Lake Superior shoreline in a small Mackinaw-style boat called The Wanderer, taking daring shots of the cliffs and coves of the Upper Peninsula’s northern coast. There’s a risk-taking quality to his photos that can’t be faked, he put himself in danger for the sake of art, and the result was his stunning Gems of Lake Superior Scenery collection, an early example of stereographic photography.

These stereographic images, designed to be viewed with special viewers called stereoscopes, enabled viewers to imagine these places as three-dimensional landscapes. B.F. Childs showed the world the U.P. in 3-D in the 1870s. The Lake Superior coast was documented with what can reasonably be considered an early version of virtual reality.

Perhaps the greatest Upper Peninsula influence on the art of photography came from a creative partnership between George Shiras III and his guide, John Hammer. These men pioneered early flash photography and techniques to capture images of wildlife in natural contexts, especially at night.

George Shiras III, a Pittsburgh, Penn. lawyer and politician, visited Marquette and his family’s camp on Whitefish Lake in Alger County each summer since childhood. He married Frances White, daughter of local businessman Peter White, who also spent her summers camping on Whitefish Lake. John Hammer, born in Christiana, Norway, gained experience working for an optics factory in Oslo. He emigrated to the United States in 1881, settling first in Detroit, then Marquette in 1885. Hammer was a talented engineer and inventor, holding patents for camera technology in several countries.

Between 1890 and 1910, Shiras and Hammer scoured the wilds of the U.P., perfecting ways to take pictures of the shy creatures of our northern forests. The images they produced were published in National Geographic and caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, with whom Shiras established a lasting friendship.

Shiras became an influential advocate for conservation and wildlife protection, writing most of the language for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This act, a response to the ecologically devastating commercial feather trade, was one of the first internationally focused environmental laws ever ratified.

John Munro Longyear, who built a successful career investing in land in the U.P., was also a passionate photographer. He documented the landscape of the U.P., taking trips to Isle Royale, the Porcupine Mountains and Pictured Rocks. As its co-founder, he took many photos of the Huron Mountain Club.

J.M. Longyear also traveled around the world with cameras, reaching numerous international destinations when travel photography was developing as an artform. Longyear kept several interesting journals to go along with his pictures. For instance, he took a trip to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Sri Lanka, India, and Egypt in 1912-1913. The typewritten journal of the trip he sent home to his family in America is a fascinating compliment to the pictures he took along the way.

Photography is a living tradition in the U.P. Celebrate it with pride.