On a 1905 expedition to the Klamath Basin in southwestern Oregon, at the edge of a marshy lake, William Finley sits writing notes outside the umbrella blind that he and his friend Herman Bohlman rigged up for bird photography. Photo: Herman T. Bohlman, William L. Finley, and Irene Finley

From Audubon Magazine

These Century-Old Photos Inspired Some of the West's First Bird Refuges

From early conservation "selfies" to close-up shots of nesting birds, the images are curated from a vast new digital archive.

William Lovell Finley (1876-1953) was a pioneer in using photography to promote conservation. Beginning in the late 1890s, he and his friend Herman T. Bohlman began experimenting with photography of birds in natural settings. During the following decades, Finley and his colleagues traveled through the wilds of Oregon and other western states, capturing thousands of images of wild birds in their habitats. These vivid portraits, and his impassioned writing about key Oregon sites, helped persuade President Theodore Roosevelt to designate Three Arch Rocks, Lower Klamath, and Malheur among the first federal bird refuges in the West.

Finley’s photos and writings appeared in Bird-Lore—the predecessor to Audubon—as early as 1905, and he was a founding member of what is now the Audubon Society of Portland. Throughout a long career, which included a stint as Oregon’s first state game warden and years as an independent activist, he continued to use photography to educate and entertain the public. Although his field work focused on the Pacific Northwest, he traveled throughout the U.S. giving popular public lectures illustrated with his own photos and motion pictures.

The Oregon Historical Society and Oregon State University recently collaborated on a project to collect and digitize much of the work of Finley and his colleagues. During 2016 and 2017 they digitized more than 6,800 images and more than 8,000 pages of manuscript materials. The small sampling featured here offers a fascinating inside look at the beginnings of the conservation movement.

Note: Because most of the images in the archives do not bear individual credits, we have credited the images to all three individuals. Bohlman and Finley worked as a team on their early expeditions, and Bohlman probably took most of the photographs, but he had little involvement after about 1908. Irene Finley began participating after her marriage in 1906, and she undoubtedly took many of the photos now in the archives—especially in later years, as her husband moved increasingly into motion pictures.

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Herman Bohlman (with camera) and William Finley pursue a duckling in a shallow marsh in Oregon’s Klamath Basin in 1905. Smaller, inexpensive cameras using rolls of film were widely available by then, but higher-quality images could be obtained with large-format field cameras like the one seen here. It was a laborious process, exposing 5-by-7-inch glass-plate negatives one at a time—a task made even more arduous in tough field conditions. While Finley and Bohlman often used tripods, in this instance they seem to have opted for hand-held mobility.

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In a marsh in the Klamath Basin in 1905, the intrepid photographers captured this portrait of a young Black Tern swimming past a wapato (arrowhead) plant. Finley’s photographs and written accounts of such avian treasures led to the establishment of wildlife refuges across the West totaling almost 240,000 acres, including Lower Klamath, designated in 1908. Eleven years after his death in 1953, the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge in west-central Oregon was named in his honor.

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Shortly after her marriage in 1906, Irene Finley began accompanying her husband in the field, undeterred by the challenges posed by fashion standards of the day. Within a few years, after Herman Bohlman’s family duties began to limit his time for expeditions, Irene became William’s main field partner. A skilled photographer in her own right, she also wrote popular articles about nature and coauthored two books with her husband.

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At Mission Peak, California, in 1904, William Finley and Herman Bohlman repeatedly climbed a massive tree to photograph a Golden Eagle nest. For this image, they rigged a camera to trigger remotely to photograph themselves along with two young eagles. This kind of intrusion on the nest would be considered unethical today. But as pioneers in their field, they were breaking new ground by merely taking photographs rather than collecting the eggs or shooting the eagles, and their actions should be considered in the context of the times.

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In June 1903, William Finley and Herman Bohlman rowed a dory out to the Three Arch Rocks off the Oregon coast. They camped there for two weeks, taking the first known photographs of the sea lions and seabirds of these islands, including birds like this adult Tufted Puffin. At the time, the islands had no legal protection; Finley and Bohlman wanted images of these birds to help make the case that the islands should be designated as a wildlife refuge.

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Armed with photos from Three Arch Rocks, including this image of a downy young Tufted Puffin, Finley traveled to Washington later in 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt was already known as a conservationist—he had designated Pelican Island, Florida, as the first federal bird refuge earlier that year—and Finley was able to schedule a meeting with him. Roosevelt reportedly was impressed by the young man’s photos and stories, and four years later, in 1907, he named Three Arch Rocks as the first federal bird refuge west of the Mississippi River.

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In this image, probably taken in 1902, Ellis Hadley, William Finley, and Herman Bohlman have removed their trousers to wade out to photograph a Red-tailed Hawk nest near Portland, Oregon. Although it might look like a candid shot, this was undoubtedly set up with care. Look closely at Bohlman’s hand and you can see the cord he’s using to trip the shutter on the camera, taking this early “selfie.” Finley understood the value of promoting his own work, and frequently arranged to get photos of himself and his colleagues in the field.

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Gulls, mostly adult California Gulls, circle high over Klamath Lake in southwestern Oregon. Images of birds in flight were mostly lacking from Finley’s earliest work, probably because such action shots were technically difficult with the equipment available. This image was taken in 1912, exposing cellulose nitrate film instead of the glass-plate negatives that Finley and his partners had used earlier.

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For a 1908 expedition to the Malheur Basin in southeastern Oregon, Finley and Bohlman converted an automobile into a modern version of a covered wagon or prairie schooner, and used it as both a camper and a photo lab. Here they pause for lunch next to the vehicle.

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In 1919, the Finleys returned to the Malheur Basin with their two children, William Jr. and Phoebe. As usual, the trip was built around photography and nature study. Here Irene Finley focuses on a group of American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants. This was at the edge of a nesting colony, and the birds in the scene are probably all too young to fly. Such a close approach for photography would not be condoned today, but at the time it was a stark contrast to the outright destruction of nesting colonies that had occurred in earlier decades.  

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William and Irene Finley traveled through Arizona and New Mexico in 1910 with their two young children in tow. Near Tucson, they found a nest of Black-throated Sparrows. When the Finleys set up equipment to photograph the chicks, the parent sparrows overcame their fear and resumed feeding the youngsters. Here, an adult Black-throated Sparrow perches on one of the cameras. Other images from the same series show family members holding baby sparrows while adults come in to feed them. Although William Finley and his partners scorned ”nature faking,” they were not above manipulating or posing flightless young birds to get their shots.

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In a thimbleberry bush near Portland, Oregon, an adult female Rufous Hummingbird perches at the edge of her nest—a small marvel of plant fibers and spider webs, the outside festooned with bits of lichen. The Finleys and Bohlman took extensive series of images at hummingbird nests several times over the years, including this nest from 1904. With the equipment available at the time, this was the only practical way to get photographs of hummingbirds in the wild.

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Today it's illegal to keep most native birds or mammals in captivity without special permits, but in the past, many naturalists kept such creatures both as pets and as objects for observation. In this 1926 photo, William Finley poses with Don Q. Quail, the family’s pet California Quail. Over the years the family had many such companions, one of the most unusual being a California Condor named General. In a popular 1928 book, Wild Animal Pets, William and Irene Finley described some of these experiences.

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Photography research by Camilla Cerea. 

This story originally ran in the Summer 2018 issue of Audubon as Early Heroes of Bird Photography.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

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