From Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, by Errol Fuller. Princeton University Press, 2014. Copyright 2013 © Errol Fuller
We tend to think of extinction as a silent process, occurring somewhere far, far away and long, long ago, but the unfocused, unstructured, sepia and black-and-white photographs collected in Lost Animals force us to acknowledge the loss. These animals survived for thousands of years, long enough to enter the photographic age and to be captured on film. The photos bring these lost species close enough to touch—almost, but not quite!
In creating a photographic record of extinct animals, one faces many challenges, but the two major obstacles are simply stated—how do you decide what animals to include? And are there photographs available of these species?
The problem of what is extinct and what is not is complicated because for a number of species, hopes are regularly expressed that individuals may still survive in some out-of-the-way place. The thylacine, the Pink-headed duck, the Ivory-billed woodpecker or the paradise parrot are all examples of this kind of wishful thinking. Perhaps they do still survive, but it is far, far more likely that they do not.
Further muddling the issue is the question of the borderline between species and subspecies. In Lost Animals creatures that are generally regarded as merely extinct races of still surviving species have not been included, with two notable exceptions.
The Quagga and the Heath Hen are generally regarded as races of species that otherwise still exist, but they are included because they have gained such a clear identity in the minds of those who have interested themselves in the subject of extinct animals, and also because reasonably good photographs of both species exist.
The other major challenge in presenting a photographic record of extinct species is finding the photographs. In many cases, the photographs in Lost Animals are among only a handful known to be in existence for an entire species; others are the only known photograph. In a digital age where we take more photographs every 2 minutes than the number of photographs taken in the entire 19th century, it is easy to forget how difficult, time-consuming, and expensive photography was in its early days.
Some readers will no doubt complain about the quality of the photographs. It is worth noting that many of them were taken in exceptionally difficult circumstances when just a fleeting view of the subject was obtained.
Cumbersome, heavy equipment was needed and often this had to be hauled for miles over difficult terrain. Lighting was critical, so too was complete stillness of the subject. Wet plates that dried out before the subject was properly in position and the need to be relatively close to it were all problems that had to be overcome. Also, there was no way of knowing just what the camera had caught. Immediate inspection (something we take for granted today) was out of the question. Film had to be ‘developed’ in a dark room and this facility was often miles (or perhaps many days travel) from the place where photos were taken.
Also significant is the fact that photographers often had no idea how important their photos would become. They didn’t necessarily have any insight into the notion that their subject would soon become extinct.
But despite all of the handicaps, these photos are evocative and moving records of creatures that are gone. Hopefully the viewer will accept them, flaws and all, for what they are and what they represent.