Getting the Picture

Page 4 of 4

"I had been told for years that I could not get
photographs of mountain sheep."

First One

Wildlife photography, the hunting of mammals and birds in the wild with a camera instead of a gun, was a recreational and educational sport initiated by George Shiras (1859-1942) of Michigan, and almost simultaneously by Allen Wallihan (1859-1935) of Colorado.1 Shiras's photo-essay, "Photographing Wild Game with Flashlight and Camera," which appeared in The National Geographic Magazine in July of 1906, consisted of 70 pictures, including many extraordinary flash photos, but not a single shot of either a bighorn sheep or a mountain goat. That same year, however, Wallihan proudly published two photographs of his own containing bighorn sheep (Fig. 28).

Figure 28

"A Band of Mountain Sheep"
No. 2
by A. G. Wallihan

Historic photo of bighorn sheep

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Original size, 7-7/8 x 5 inches.

This scene, perhaps the first published photo of live—although scarcely recognizable—bighorn sheep was shot in the Rockies of northwestern Colorado by Wallihan in 1898. It appeared in one of the earliest books of wildlife photos to be published in the U.S.2

Wallihan described the effort, the risk, and the frustration of "hunting with a camera." It cost him two days of hard work and consummate patience to capture two images, the one above, and the one below, which was even less revealing. Having spotted a band of sheep on the summit of a lofty peak about a mile away, he shouldered his heavy 8 x 10-inch bellows camera and tripod and worked his way, buffeted by gale-force wind, across the face of a cliff that was almost perpendicular on one side of him, and "very precipitous" on the other, sometimes on a ledge no more than two or three feet wide. By the time he reach the spot where he expected to see his prey, they had descended unnoticed to a meadow below.

Crawling out to the edge, I made a thorough search to see how many there were and what could be done, and found I could go no farther, but must let them come to me. Ere long they were all up and feeding, and I counted fifty-six. When they had worked within about two hundred yards, I exposed a plate with the telephoto lens on the thickest part of the herd, and covered thirty-six. They were all feeding, so their heads were down, and I reasoned that if I alarmed them they would leave and be harder to get at, so resolved to keep out of sight and work on them there as long as I could. I made five exposures in all, but only the one showed them well. After an hour or more they gradually fed right round beneath me and within seventy-five yards, but I could not get the camera pointed down quick enough to catch the rams as they passed, and the two plates exposed were not good. . . . I returned to camp, much elated at my supposed success, as I had been told for years that I could not get photographs of mountain sheep.

The reason was simply that bighorns have the ability to retreat quickly to inaccessible heights the moment even one of a band senses the proximity of an intruder. From the first, practically every Western traveler who saw any at all remarked that their best view was either of heads peering over the edges of cliffs several hundred feet above, or indistinct shapes browsing in meadows far below.

The next day Wallihan tried again, pursuing a smaller band of sheep on another mountain. He had nearly reached the summit when he happened to see two rams watching him from below; betting they would ascend via the same trail he had followed, he sat down to wait for them to appear. However, they climbed around him toward the summit. Carrying his camera, tripod, and one plate-holder (which would give him only two shots), he climbed after them. As he neared the top he saw them lying down.

Keeping under the edge of the hilltop, I could work to the right until under cover of some trees, and then from clump to clump until I was near them. The wind was now blowing a gale, so that they could not hear me. Presently I found that I could not pass either side of a clump of dwarf, stunted spruce without being seen; so, taking my pocket knife, I cut my way through the clump and went on up to the next one, which was directly in line with the one I had cut through. . . . On account of the wind, I gave too short an exposure, and had the camera pointed too high. Lowering the camera, I turned the plate-holder, and when next it was aimed the ram was standing with his head from me and evidently alarmed . . . so I exposed again (Figure 29). This time the camera was aimed high, but cut off only his feet at the bottom of the plate.

Figure 29

"An Old Ram"
(Mountain Sheep, No. 5)
by A. G. Wallihan

historic photo of a mountain sheep

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

Original size, 7-7/8 x 5 inches.

Accurate aiming and focusing could only be done through the lens; once a plate-holder was inserted at the back of the camera the only option was to take a snap-shot—that is, point the lens in the general direction of the subject, hope it would be in focus and that the shutter was set at the right speed, and squeeze the pneumatic shutter release. In addition to an extra measure of pluck and patience, it required a reliable sense of balance and a good deal of strength to photograph bighorns in the wild. Wallihan's camera, lens, shutter, and film holder combined would have weighed ten pounds or more.


Figure 30

A. G. Wallihan with his
Rochester Optical Co.
8 x 10 "Universal"


Special Collections, Mansfield Library

The photograph shown above is an albumen print, which means it was printed on paper that was coated with salted egg white and sensitized with silver nitrate. The process, which helped to ensure permanence of the image, was invented about 1855 and applied to glass plates for several decades. Around 1890, glass plates were replaced by gelatin and collodion papers of the type that Wallihan used.

Camera Shots was Wallihan's second book. His first, which appeared in 1894, contained one photo of bighorn sheep that the publisher, Frank Thayer, included over Wallihan's rigorous objection that it impugned his integrity as a photographer. It was simply a fake—a photo of a taxidermist's grouping of four stuffed sheep in a plaster of Paris mountain scene, crudely enhanced by an inept artist, with shadows falling in conflicting directions. Another fake photo Thayer dropped into Wallihan's book depicted five mountain goats—a billy, two nannies and a kid—on a rock outcrop in a field of sagebrush!3 That was precisely the sort of dishonesty that wildlife photographers despised as much as gun-hunters reviled those who shot their trophies in commercial game parks.

Wallihan's photographs of bighorn sheep added practically nothing to the public's understanding of the species. But in light of the discouragement he had borne from those who predicted he would never be able to capture them with his lens, and inasmuch as he realized the species was on the verge of extinction, these two images were triumphal trophies.

George Shiras didn't even attempt to photograph Rocky Mountain bighorns, and his efforts in 1911 to photograph bighorns (Ovis dalli) on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula produced only marginal results.4


A Taxonomic Grab-Bag

Figure 31

Ovis canadensis Shaw

©2000 Egleye, Mike Dreesman

This video sequence includes six different Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Assuming all other factors are equal, such as richness of forage, their approximate ages can be read from their horns, although the teeth are more reliable indicators. The first one, whose horns each describe a complete c, probably is an adult about six years of age. The second, chewing his cud, whose horns have circled above the cheek to the eye, is perhaps eight or nine years old. Number three may be a year or so older; one of his horns has been "broomed," or broken off perhaps deliberately by rubbing against rocks, but maybe just accidentally in one of his species' typical marathon head-butting bouts. Ram number four, silhouetted against a frozen waterfall, is another adult somewhat over six or seven years of age. The length of number five's horns indicate he is probably the youngest of them all. The sixth ram must be the oldest, judging from the battered tips of his nearly full-circle horns; he may be ten years old or more, approaching his maximum life span, which would be about fourteen years.

Rocky Mountain sheep are still found in the Missouri River Breaks in the same place where Lewis and Clark acquired their first three specimens. It is believed that the population thereabouts currently numbers approximately 900 head, which is roughly the carrying capacity of that 500-square-mile zone, and is more than likely about the same number as occupied it in 1805-06.9

Wildlife videographer Mike Dreesman, whose work has also been seen among the closing vignettes on CBS Sunday Morning, shot these rams in 1999 with a Sony DVCAM through an 18x Fujinon lens with a 2x extender, from a distance of between 100 and 200 feet. All were found in the Canadian Rockies, by sheer coincidence in approximately the same area where Duncan McGillivray bagged his famous specimen in November of 1800.

In 1895 a group of taxonomists from many parts of the world established the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to bring order to what was then an incipient chaos among the taxonomies of animals, by publishing a Code of rules to standardize the procedures.5 However, the Code was slow in sorting out the taxonomic grab-bag relating to the correct name of the bighorn sheep. In 1913 Wilfred H. Osgood (1875-1947), one of the leading mammologists of his generation, lamented that "for nearly twenty years there has been an unfortunate lack of uniform usage respecting the [scientific] name of the Rocky Mountain Sheep. Owing to the size and importance of the animal, it is referred to in many works of sport and travel, and since it has been divided into numerous geographical races, its name is of frequent occurrence in various classes of zoˆlogical publications. Therefore agreement as to its scientific name is more than usually desirable."

Osgood pointed out that, driven by "the habit of disagreement," zoologists had created a chaos of conflicting taxonomies that could be traced back to a little nomenclatural scrimmage that took place within a three-month period early in 1804, and that it all hinged on uncertainty over the exact date of the issue of The Naturalist's Miscellany in which George Kearsley Shaw's disquisition appeared. The impact of that uncertainty was compounded by the fact that the French zoologist Anselme Ga"tan Desmarest (1725-1815) had published the name Ovis cervina ("sheep like a deer") around the first of March, 1804, and a German zoologist named Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber (1739-1810) tendered Ovis montana ("sheep of the mountains") about April 1. Through exhaustive bibliographical research, however, Osgood found hard evidence that the actual date of Shaw's publication of Ovis canadensis was February 1, 1804. Whereas Desmarest's argument consisted of a description without a figure, and von Schreber's a figure but no description, Shaw's had all three elements. On the bases of priority and completeness, Ovis canadensis finally claimed its place.6 The hundred-year wrangle over the rubric was resolved.

A Never-Ending Story

Carl Linnaeus's original catalog eventually included some 7,700 plants and 4,400 animals, but by the close of the twentieth century, biologists estimated there were as many as one hundred million species on earth, of which only 1.75 million had been identified, and only 80,000 systematically placed in their respective trees of life. Moreover, the rediscovery in the 1920s of the conclusion by Gregor Johann Mendel (1722-1884) that biological traits are inherited according to certain natural laws, spawned the science of molecular genetics, which vastly expanded the scope of wildlife biology.7 The picture has become deeper and richer than Carl Linnaeus, and those who subsequently followed his lead, had ever imagined it could be.

Now, for the time being at least, we know what to call that noble wild creature with the graceful big horns. Six races of the species Ovis canadensis, totalling approximately 66,000 head, still populate the western United States.8 About half of them are Ovis canadensis canadensis, the subspecies to which most of the sheep killed by the Corps of Discovery probably belonged, including the five complete specimens they carried back to the East.

So, is this the end of the story? Not likely, though no one can say what new truths genetic science might uncover, or when. And who knows how the genes of the bighorn sheep and the mountain goat will respond to the climatic changes that are now affecting our own lives. The only reassurance we have is the knowledge that the mammals we call Ovis canadensis Shaw, and Oreamnos americanus (Blainville) have been through similarly profound crises many more times during their Earthly sojourn than we can count.

Shakespeare was right. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."


1. C. A. W. Guggisberg, Early Wildlife Photographers (London: David & Charles, 1977), 35-42.

2. A. G. Wallihan, Camera Shots at Big Game, (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., [1901] 1906), facing p. 34.

3. A. G. Wallihan, Hoofs, Claws and Antlers of the Rocky Mountains—by the Camera, (Denver: Frank S. Thayer, Publisher, 1894).

4. George Shiras, Hunting Wild Life with Camera and Flashlight, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1936), 2:401, 403.

5. The fourth edition of the Code is available online at In 2006 the ICZN launched ZooBank, a world register of 1.5 million scientific names of animals, at

6. Wilfred H. Osgood, "The Name of the Rocky Mountain Sheep," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 26 (March 22, 1913), 57-62. Ibid., "Dates for Ovis Canadensis, Ovis Cervina, and Ovis Montana," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 27 (February 2, 1914), 1-4.

7. See, for example, Gordon Luikart and Fred W. Allendorf, "Mitochondrial-DNA Variation and Genetic-Population Structure in Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis)," Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 77, No. 1 (February 1996), 109-123.

8. Ovis c. canadensis, O. c. californiana, (listed as endangered in the Sierra Nevada in 1999), O. c. nelsoni (the most abundant of the desert bighorn), O. c. mexicana (listed as endangered in New Mexico), O. c. cremnobates (chiefly in Baja California, Mexico; the population of this subspecies in southern California was listed as endangered in 1998), and O. c. weemsi (also in Baja California Sur). Accessed June 16, 2007.]

9. Al Rosgard and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Personal communications, June 27, 2007,

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge-Cost Share Program