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  • The Cinema as Taxidermy:Carl Akeley and the Preservative Obsession
  • Mark Alvey (bio)

Carl Akeley is a central figure in early 20th century natural history—as an explorer, a museum collector, a conservationist, and as the single most important figure in the development of the art of taxidermy. By virtue of his status as "the Father of Modern Taxidermy" and a pioneer in lifelike museum habitat dioramas, Akeley holds a place of peculiar significance in the world of museums, and indeed the history of representation. Significantly, in parallel with his taxidermic accomplishments, Akeley was an accomplished sculptor as well as a prolific inventor—most notable, in the present context, for a unique motion picture camera designed for ease and mobility in fieldwork, which rapidly became a favorite of documentarists (Flaherty used two Akeleys to shoot Nanook of the North [US/FR, 1922]), the essential apparatus for aerial work (e.g., Wings [William Wellman, US, 1927]), and eventually the standard tool for newsreels. Passing mentions of the Akeley camera are scattered here and there in our film histories, especially in the context of camera innovations in the silent era, and in the literature on documentaries and films of exploration. Kevin Brownlow has afforded Akeley more attention than most, calling him "a vital, if neglected figure in motion picture history."1

Although the technological innovations of Akeley's camera hardly rank with the inventions of Edison, the coming of sound, or recent advances in digital effects, his specific contribution to motion picture history is certainly important enough to warrant having more light shed on it. In addition, Akeley and his work—not only his invention and scattered cinematographic output, but the totality of his creative efforts—invite consideration from a theoretical perspective. The motion picture for Akeley was but one medium in a broad repertoire of artistic endeavor that had a singular and coherent source [End Page 23]

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Figure 1.

Carl Akeley with an early prototype of his motion picture camera. Neg. No. 311839. Courtesy of the Department of Library Services, American Museum of Natural History.

of motivation: to make a faithful record of the natural world. Considering the range of Akeley's tools—photography, motion picture photography, sculpture, and taxidermy—is suggestive of a fundamental human drive, posited by many critics, to record and/or replicate reality. No doubt the best known formulation of this impulse—to media scholars at least—is André Bazin's proposition that at the root of the representational arts is an "obsession with realism" [End Page 24] or in his famous shorthand, a "mummy complex." The resonance of such Bazinian formulations with the case of Akeley, taxidermist and filmmaker, is immediately intriguing. Akeley's work constitutes a singular manifestation of that obsession—in a sense, its living embodiment—a real, demonstrable, indeed sometimes explicitly stated drive to "capture" the natural world through representational forms. In the following pages I consider the unique case of Carl Akeley as an exemplar of this realist obsession, driven by individual (psychological/scientific/artistic) forces as well as cultural (technological/historiographical) ones. The essay has two general aims: first, to introduce Carl Akeley and his work to the reader (especially the film scholar) who might be unfamiliar with them, yet predisposed to find the man and his contributions of interest; and second, to explore his work in the context of realist theories of cinema and representation, where, I believe, it offers unique insights into the interplay among representational forms, and in some sense serves to test certain theoretical pronouncements about them.

The Father of Modern Taxidermy

Carl Akeley might be called a born naturalist. Born in 1864, he spent his childhood tromping around the woods of western New York, bird-watching, hunting, and observing the flora and fauna of the region. He became fascinated with taxidermy at an early age after a trip to a small museum in Rochester, and taught himself the basics with the help of a how-to pamphlet, showing early skill stuffing a pet canary for a neighbor. While in his teens he had business cards printed up announcing himself as a practitioner of "artistic taxidermy in all its...


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