A Tale: Photographing Grizzlies With Flash Powder — 1906

At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, a self-described hunter-naturalist named William Henry Wright decided to start carrying a camera on his various expeditions. He soon began taking excursions just to photograph animals. After a while, he decided to take on the challenges of photographing grizzlies.

Because the grizzlies are shy and tend to be nocturnal, Wright said, chances of taking a daylight photo were slim, so he began experimenting with ways to use batteries and tripwires to ignite flash powder. By 1906 he had perfected his techniques enough to go to Yellowstone Park to try them out.

It took several attempts before Wright succeeded in getting a decent photograph. Here’s his description of his first try.


I followed some of the more travelled trails for several miles and found that nearly all of the grizzlies had their headquarters in the range of mountains around Mt. Washburn. I then selected their largest highway, and after setting up my camera, concealed myself one evening about a hundred feet from the trail and to leeward of it, and watched for the coming of the grizzlies. Across the trail I had stretched a number forty sewing thread, one end attached to the electric switch and the other to a small stake driven into the ground beyond the trail. Just below where I had located, there was an open park in which the bears had been feeding, as was shown by the grass that had been nipped and the holes that had been dug for roots.

For some hours I waited in the bushes and fought gnats and mosquitoes. I saw several black bears pass along the hillside, but not a grizzly showed his nose until after the sun had set and the little marsh in the park was covered with a mantle of fog. Suddenly then, far up the trail, appeared what at first looked like a shadow, so slowly and silently did it move. But I knew at once, by the motion of the head and the long stride, that a grizzly was coming to the bottom for a few roots and a feed of grass.

I was, of course, very anxious to see what he would do when he came to the thread across the trail, and I had not long to wait, for he came on steadily but slowly and, when within ten feet of the thread, he stopped, poked out his nose and sniffed two or three times, raised up on his hind feet, took a few more sniffs, and then bolted up the trail in the direction from which he had come.

A few minutes after he had gone, three more appeared. These were evidently of one litter and appeared to be between two and three years old. They came on with the same cautious movements, and when they were close upon the thread, they also stopped and went through a similar performance. The one in front pushed out his nose and sniffed gingerly at the suspicious object. Those in the rear also stopped, but being curious to learn what was causing the blockade, the second one placed his forefeet on the rump of the one in front, in order to see ahead, while the third one straightened up on his hind legs and looked over the other two.

They made a beautiful group, and just as they had poised themselves, the one in front must have touched the string a little harder than he had intended to, for there was a sudden flash that lit up the surroundings, and I expected to see the bears go tearing off through the timber, but, to my utter surprise, nothing of the kind happened.

They all three stood up on their hind legs, and looked at each other as much as to say, “Now, what do you think of that?” and then they took up their investigation where it had been interrupted, followed the thread to where it was fastened to the stick, clawed up the spool, which I had buried in the ground, sniffed at it, and then went back to the trail, where they had first found the thread. Here they again stood up, and then, having either satisfied their curiosity or becoming suspicious, they turned around and trailed away through the timber.

As far as I could see them they went cautiously, and stopped at frequent intervals to stand up and look behind them to see if there were any more flashes or if anything was following them. Unfortunately this picture was utterly worthless. I had failed to use enough flash powder, and when I came to develop the plate, it showed only the dimmest outline of the animals.


— From William Henry Wright, The Grizzly Bear: The Narrative of a Hunter Naturalist,  Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1909.

— Photo from the book.

2 thoughts on “A Tale: Photographing Grizzlies With Flash Powder — 1906

  1. Pingback: An Event: Ready To Sign Adventures in Yellowstone at Old Faithful Inn « M. Mark Miller

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