The Keartons by John Bevis review – how nature photography relies on fakery

Richard and Cherry Kearton were pioneering wildlife photographers, who realised that capturing nature depended on invention. This is an excellent study of their achievement.

Birds don’t stop still very often. Nests are their only clutter and the necessity to incubate eggs their only anchor; both are temporary ties to the fabric of the planet. Before camera technology could itself move fast enough to capture the speed of life, its early users sought fixed things to snap. So it was that in Boreham Wood on 10 April 1892, the brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton took the first ever photograph of a bird’s nest in use. Richard found a song thrush’s nest with a clutch of four eggs. “I called out to Cherry,” he wrote afterwards, “come and let us see what sort of a fist you can make of this bird’s nest with your old sun-picture apparatus.”

The brothers realised they were on to something. They took more pictures of as many British breeding birds as they could (“the most methodical application of the camera since Eadweard Muybridge”, John Bevis says), and three years later published the first nature book illustrated entirely with photographs. A stream of similar volumes followed across more than 30 years; Bevis lists 42. To this day almost every secondhand bookshop in Britain will have one.

The first professional nature photographers became famous, and to feed their fame they had to keep showing more and more of what they had captured and how they captured it. To secure their pictures, which meant getting cumbersome, static gear close to moving, nervous nature, Richard Kearton invented the portable hide. As well as clinching the shots, by stealing up on birds and watching them for days on end, the brothers saw things that no one had noticed before. The lower mandible of the wryneck, Richard proved, was longer than the upper – you can tell by looking at the picture that they took of one of these weird snaky woodpeckers bringing food to its chicks in a hole in a tree.

For the 16 years of their partnership Richard Kearton (born 1862) wrote most of the words and Cherry (born 1871) took most of the pictures. Cherry was more technically active and he diversified too, making the first field recording of wild birds singing (a nightingale and a song thrush in Kenley in 1900); filming London from the air and big game in East Africa for the first time (1908 and 1909); and capturing cinema sequences of the beginnings of the first world war in Belgium.

But it is the Keartons’ early bird photographs that remain their most original and which are still of most interest. Bevis’s excellent book, informative and intelligent, beguiled and questioning, hinges on them. He is most interested in the evidence offered by the Keartons’ work of how distortion, even fakery, is inevitable in any account of the natural world made by man. His subtitle has a double meaning: “inventing nature photography” might involve gardening a nightingale’s nest to make it more photogenic; tethering a supposed wild lion in order to photograph it being attacked by Masai hunters; changing the sequence of pictures to tell the story as it ought to be told and not as it actually unfolded. Ever since the Keartons there has been reel nature (Gregg Mitman’s term) as well as real nature.

Two tremendous photographs by the brothers, reproduced by Bevis, capture their own story and their achievements. The first features a sturdy cow, brown-looking (everything, of course, is black-and-white in Kearton-land), standing in the hedged corner of a grassy field. So far, so bucolic. But its caption tells us that the photograph is actually of a stuffed ox. In 1900, Richard got the taxidermist Rowland Ward to hollow out a cow and reinforce its legs, leaving its gut space unstuffed, making room enough (just about) for a crouching brother and his hidden camera. A hole was cut in a hairy flank for a lens to peep through. A skylark was the first target, and it fell for the ox. Thus began the parallel storytelling, how we tricked nature and got the picture, that runs alongside, sometimes even outstripping, the story itself, and which has continued down to the 10-minute extra “will they get the shot?” segments that are near mandatory these days at the end of big natural history TV productions.

The Keartons knew that the story of getting the story was as saleable as any exquisite composition of a black-throated diver on its nest on a small island in a Hebridean loch (the picture that Richard said he prized most). The dummy ox was strong enough to sit on and light enough to carry by hand. The Keartons took pictures of this and of hides made from hollow sheep and concealing cartloads of hay. They also photographed themselves, like precocious performance artists or a bizarre open-air acrobatic act, both standing high in a bare winter tree where, amazingly, one brother holds a ladder on a thin branch so that the other might climb with the camera towards a twiggy nest. In east Africa, Cherry thought of hollowing out a zebra, until local hunters reminded him that they might shoot at such a frozen target or a lion pull it down into its hot mouth.

The second notable photograph was actually two exposures printed alongside one another. Again the caption is telling, but here for its poetic choice of words. The picture is two square plates taken from above a host of daisies, the common or garden lawn-type of daisies, more than a thousand in each shot. The caption reads “Daisies Asleep (photographed before sunrise); Daisies Awake (after sunrise)”. The photographs are both ordinarily and extraordinarily beautiful, and their effect is enhanced by the dreamy words. We understand them to be photographs of time. And they illustrate what the sun-picture apparatus has released into our imaginations since the Keartons’ era – more than a century of time-travel and light-capture.

The daisy gets its name from the “day’s eye” and the Keartons worked their apertures under the same eye in the sky. They gathered the truth (all those birds’ nests) but they also gardened it as they did so. Another pair of photographs from the brothers’ behind-the-scenes series features a further hide (it allowed the Keartons to see the truth about the wryneck’s beak). They are captioned “Artificial tree-trunk open” and “Artificial tree-trunk closed”. Over and between these images of tree-trunks and daisies, the hidden and the seen, the innocent and the watchful, plays the history of nature photography and much more besides.

• The Keartons: Inventing Nature Photography is published by Uniformbooks. To order a copy for £14 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.