It would be easy to overlook the latest temporary exhibition at the Field Museum.
“Mr. Akeley’s Movie Camera” occupies a studio-apartment sized gallery tucked away at the top of a stair. Its apparent subject matter doesn’t scream “natural history” with the same volume of, say, “Mummies” or “Antarctic Dinosaurs,” two much bigger, much more heavily promoted, current exhibitions.
And that title, instead of being crafted to hang on banners from Chicago lampposts, almost sounds like it was borrowed from a mid-century British instructional film: so formal, so upright.
But this little show in the Brooker Gallery, dedicated to the obsession to reproduce the natural world that animated Field Museum founding father and first chief taxidermist Carl Akeley, drives to the very heart of the museum’s mission.
And along the way, it tells a surprising story of old Hollywood and an invention that helped early moviemakers be better storytellers.
“Though he is often described as ‘the father of modern taxidermy,’ ” a sign explains, “Akeley was also an artist, naturalist and inventor who worked in sculpture, still photography and motion pictures.”
So there are carefully chosen examples of each medium in the room. Akeley’s sculpture, small bronzes of elephants protecting a wounded compatriot, of a lion and a water buffalo going at it, is a revelation.
“Yes, they’re beautiful,” said Mark Alvey, the museum administrator and film buff credited as the exhibit’s content adviser. “He considered himself a sculptor, and he considered taxidermy to be sculpture.”
His taxidermied Stone’s sheep on display, reaching back to clean a raised hind leg with its mouth, is in a mode Alvey said a colleague described as “‘Akeley showing off.’ There was a lot of good taxidermy, but there was nobody doing this.”
But the centerpiece of “Mr. Akeley’s Camera” is, in fact, an Akeley camera, a piece of machinery, acquired by the Field at auction last year for something over $30,000, that is so elegant on its wooden tripod it might be mistaken for an art object.
The body is a blackened metal disc-shaped box adorned with brass knobs here, a long lens pair there. Its point of attachment to the tripod is a metal ball that, you grasp instantly, allowed the camera operator to compensate easily for uneven terrain.
Indeed, the 20th century American modernist photographer Paul Strand was profoundly taken by its look. Under the eye of Strand’s own still camera, the Akeley camera owned by the photographer became an art object.
“One of his original prints of the inside of his Akeley camera goes for $400,000,” said Alvey, whose museum title is academic communications manager.
But however fine its form, the device was foremost supremely functional — to the point that a genre of motion picture photography developed around it.
Akeley cameras shot “Nanook of the North” and “Wings,” 1920s films heralded for their naturalism and their ability to capture scenes that seemed ungettable. Akeley cameras were used to film chariot races in the 1925 Roman spectacle “Ben Hur,” and they were employed in numerous early wildlife films. The American Society of Cinematographers’ roster had a separate listing for “Akeley specialists.”
What Akeley invented was a lighter, more portable camera that was much easier to work with in the field than the standard.
“This was the GoPro of its day,” said Janet Hong, a Field exhibitions project manager.
Akeley had been motivated by his disappointment when, during a 1909 expedition, he attempted to film a traditional African lion hunt with standard motion picture cameras.
“Full in front of me the native hunters had drawn a lion’s charge and killed the lion with their spears,” he would write in later years. “But the opportunity had been as short-lived as it was magnificent, and the kind of camera I had then could not be handled quickly enough. As I walked back to camp that night, I was determined to make a naturalist’s moving-picture camera which would prevent my missing such a chance if ever such a one came my way again. From 1910 to 1916 I worked on this camera whenever I had a minute to spare.”
Akeley was a “maniac workaholic” and inveterate tinkerer, Alvey explained. The Field’s first home was the former 1893 World’s Fair building that now houses the Museum of Science and Industry, but it hadn’t been built to last.
To try to remedy its exterior cladding problems, Akeley invented a sprayable concrete and the gun to spray it, which became widely known — and used — as “gunite” or, later, “shotcrete.”
For moving pictures, the machine he devised was truly ingenious, stocked with innovations. Among them: Operators could pan and tilt with one hand. They could change film in 20 seconds or less and change lenses even more quickly. The viewfinder was through a lens that ran parallel to the camera lens so that it showed almost the same image. And although no featherweight, it was considerably lighter than the alternative.
This invention “rapidly became a favorite of documentarists, the essential apparatus for aerial work and eventually the standard tool for newsreels,” Alvey wrote in a 2007 article on Akeley and his camera for a film journal.
All of this may come as a surprise to people, even to self-defined museum nerds, who thought they had a handle on Akeley as the fellow who modernized taxidermy.
As the Field’s chief taxidermist from 1896 to 1909, the intrepid naturalist brought those two African elephants back to the museum from a turn-of-the-last-century expedition, mounted them in an eternally kinetic fighting pose, and won himself a seemingly permanent place in the museum’s central hall.
In a gallery to the west, his “Four Seasons of the Virginia Deer,” a four-scene depiction of a species feared at the time to be vanishing, is thought of as a masterpiece — if not the masterpiece — of the taxidermic arts. Akeley mounted thousands of leaves in this display, foliage appropriate to the animal’s habitat, of course. He showed the vein across a doe’s face, the intent alertness on her face and in her body when she hears a sound that might signal a threat to her nearby fawn.
He would burnish his own legend by calling the brand of taxidermy that came before him “upholstery.”
But the camera and the taxidermy were of a piece for Akeley, argues Alvey, who proposed the museum buy the Akeley camera and build an exhibition around it.
Alvey’s academic article on the topic is “The Cinema as Taxidermy: Carl Akeley and the Preservative Obsession.” But, again, the formal title of the piece, published in a 2007 edition of Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, only hints at the fascinating story.
“ ‘Akeley specialists were called upon to lash their instruments high on the masts of ships, on the arms of derricks, or to be still different, in deep holes looking up,’ ” the article quotes a 1928 writer in American Cinematographer.
After leaving the Field Akeley moved on to work primarily with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said Alvey, although the lion’s share (ahem) of his taxidermy work was done here.
He had patented gunite and its equipment, and he set up a factory to make Akeley cameras, which remained popular into the 1940s. But he doesn’t appear to have made much money from either; Alvey said the Field has records showing Akeley’s estate, upon his death in 1926, was modest.
What he did have, always, was that driving interest to capture natural life as naturally as he could accomplish the task.
“Through skin, film, clay, and bronze,” Alvey writes, “Akeley illuminated different aspects of these creatures, some purely physical, some less tangible. Each feature captured something of the animal’s true nature; each medium and each attempt flowed back to Akeley’s core fascination with nature and animals, and that founding obsession to communicate some of the truth that he knew and passion he felt about them.”
With his movie camera, in other words, Akeley was practicing a form of taxidermy, which was a form of sculpture, which was a very essence of natural history.
But at the same time, as Hong pointed out in the gallery for “Mr. Akeley’s Camera,” the development of cameras that could readily capture footage of animals in the wild led to a diminished appreciation for the medium Akeley was best known for.
“In a certain sense,” she said, “this killed taxidermy.”
‘Mr. Akeley’s Camera’
When: Through March
Where: Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included with $24 general admission; 312-922-9410 or www.fieldmuseum.org