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The Field Photographs of Herbert Lang from the American Museum Congo Expedition, 1909-1915

by Anthony Troncale

When the American Museum of Natural History proposed that Herbert Lang oversee its expedition to the Belgian Congo in 1909, he was clearly the right man for the job. Lang had just returned from British East Africa (now Kenya) as official taxidermist to the trophy hunter Richard Tjader, who was asked by then director Herman Bumpus to gather specimens for the museum. Lang was already an accomplished photographer and had been recruited by Tjader to photograph some aspects of the expedition. Lang photographed many of the plates reproduced in Tjader's book about the expedition, The Big Game of Africa. Those images give us an early look at Lang's approach toward photographic documentation in the field. While Tjader preferred 'hunting' animals with a camera, Lang tended to focus directly on the specimens collected, framing them carefully to depict scale and delineate markings. His intention was to document specimens before they were skinned, and to help guide the taxidermist in mounting the animals back at the museum.

The principle mission of the Congo Expedition was to gather biological and ethnographic materials for study and display back at the American Museum's laboratories and exhibition halls. The collectors would first kill the animals, taking care not to do too much damage to the pelts, and then take detailed measurements. Before skinning specimens, Lang consistently photographed them from several angles, taking frontal, left, right, and full-length views. Sometimes Lang also photographed the habitats of the animals so that the diorama artists could reconstruct the scenes in a more accurate and natural setting. Plaster casts of flora and other fauna were also taken from the collecting point for accurate recreation of the diorama.

Lang used three different types of cameras: a bellows type view camera that produced 5 x 7-inch negatives, a Naturalist Graflex camera that took 4 x 5-inch negatives, and a camera called the Verascope, which produced stereoscopic negatives in two formats, 4.5 x 10.7 and 7 x 13 cm. The view camera produced images of the highest detail, but also required the use of a heavy tripod. Lang generally used this camera to shoot close-up studies of the specimens collected and for portraits of the tribe peoples he encountered.

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