A Brief History of Trophy Photography

A Brief History of Trophy Photography

You Just Had to Be There

A few years back, I attended a National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) summit. In one of the breakout sessions, we got in small groups for an exercise – which was and still is one of my least favorite things to do. Sorry NSSF, nothing personal, it just gives me flashbacks to high school and well, that just wasn’t a great time for me. Anyways, each group was given a controversial subject mainstream communities do not particularly like about gun people, and tasked with coming up with a solution to fix this perception. The topic in our group: trophy photography.

A vintage trophy photograph shows hunters with Dall sheep.

Now, I’m probably about to make A LOT of people mad with this comparison, but here goes. As a non-hunter for most of my life, before I got into hunting, I truly did not understand trophy photography. I mean, as a former ghost hunter and someone obsessed with all things macabre, I guess I could kind-of see the allure, but also found it potentially as creepy as people who would prop up their dead children for a postmortem photograph in the late 19th century. As it turns out, when you dig deeper, those parents had a perfectly logical reason for doing so - memories. Back then, mortality rates were high for children and photographs weren’t common like they are today. Most likely, parents of children who died young didn’t have an image to remember them by. The same could be said about why a hunter takes a photo at the end of a hunt – memory of the experience. And I guess if I’m going to make this comparison, I should probably reverse my dislike of the Victorian practice of jewelry made out of dead people’s hair as a keepsake, since I currently have elk ivories in a baggy waiting to be made into earrings.

While this comparison may seem a tad bit bizarre, it also reveals one of the biggest flaws in human nature – judging the unknown - exactly what I and others do with trophy photography. I didn’t get it, therefore, I didn’t like it. So when I started hunting, the historian who dabbles in anthropology in me decided to throw myself completely into the field by participating in every tradition, no matter what my preconceived notions were. Although, I will say cutting off and hanging bull elk testicles on a tree after my harvest may be one of the weirder traditions that provided neither the bull nor me any great satisfaction - but I did it, nonetheless. I also have always participated in trophy photography. Man, that was an academic way of saying that.

True to tradition, bull testicles hang from a tree.

I find the whole process fascinating. Since I have hunted primarily with guides, I figure I have gotten to see pure influencer levels of experience with trophy photography. They know where to pull the animal so there is seemingly no blood. They have tips for how to prop up the animal’s head. They know where to position the firearm and how to position the hunter for the optimal framed moment. As I watch this process unfold, it makes me curious as to when this got started and why.

In the late 19th century, photography was developing into a much more user friendly and portable option for capturing a moment – although still out of reach for the average layman. The 19th century was also the birthplace of the conservation movement and the beginning of magazines like Field and Stream. Preservation and study of wildlife sat at the epicenter. Believe it or not, the origin of “trophy photography” initially did not necessarily mean killing an animal and taking it home as a trophy. In fact, today’s camera safaris are just as linked to the origin of this type of photography than hunting in and of itself. It was called, “Camera Hunting,” and it was widely supported and encouraged by conservation figureheads such as Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell – Grinnell would come to prefer it over photographing a dead animal. Magazines would hold competitions for the best capture (through the lens) of wildlife. In a sense, early camera hunting required the skill of a hunter to get close and be still enough to take the photograph. The resulting image emulated the view of an animal through a rifle scope and in this instance, the photograph was the trophy.

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a trophy elephant, taken during his African hunting trip of 1910.

The idea behind capturing nature and wildlife took on many forms around the same time frame. Some people took images of live animals, others photographed animals in the moment they were hit by a firearm. In this instance, a photographer would set up a camera on the end of what looked like a rifle and follow the shot fired by a fellow hunter right next to the photographer. However, the tedium of this often ended horribly as in one example, it took 200 attempts to get the “shot,” resulting in 200 dead birds. Finally, others photographed animals after they were killed. Most people did a combination of the first and last examples. Grinnell called it hunting with or without a gun.

All in all, each of these categories existed to document wildlife in the moment for the preservation of the past. And who knows, maybe someone right now is tracking your social media to study your trophy photos for the greater good of society, not sure who would do that though. And while I’ve reversed my initial reactions to trophy photography, it may never truly be understood by people on the outside because like all good memories, sometimes, you just had to be there.

Trophy photography originated as "Camera Hunting," a predecessor to today's 'camera safaris'.

Ashley Hlebinsky is a Curator Emerita & Senior Firearms Scholar for the Cody Firearms Museum Founding Curator, an Adjunct Scholar of Firearms History, Technology & Culture at the Firearms Policy Coalition. She is President of The Gun Code, LLC - a Firearms History Consultancy, Co-Host of Discovery Channel’s Master of Arms, and Founding President of the Association of Firearms History and Museums.