The occasion of Black History Month prompts us to acknowledge influential African-Americans whose contributions are still being felt today. In the world of ornithology and conservation, where Audubon works, those figures are far too few, and those that we know of are under-appreciated. Falling into this latter category is Robert A. Gilbert, an early Twentieth Century nature photographer who contributed greatly to the early days of ornithological study.
Gilbert’s story was unearthed by author John Hanson Mitchell, who came across a treasure of glass plate negatives owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The negatives had been credited to William Brewster, the society’s first president. But upon further review, it became clear to Mitchell that most, if not all, of the images were actually created by his assistant, Gilbert. And Gilbert emerges as one of the great natural history photographers of his era. Gilbert wasn’t exactly a birder, but his ability to photograph birds and nests, as well as his talent for “bird-spotting” made him a strong contributor on walks and expeditions. Mitchell documents his discovery in his book, Looking for Mr. Gilbert.
Knowing what we know of those times, it isn't hard for us to imagine that Gilbert and his work were co-opted and exploited by others. But Mitchell doesn't feel that is the case here. Gilbert and Brewster appear to have had a deep mutal respect for one another. Most of the images were attributed to Brewster after his death. Moreoever, Mitchell notes that most of the images were considered documentary in nature, so perhaps were not considered proprietary at the time. It's hard for us to verify any of that so many years later. But we can certainly be glad that Gilbert is now appreciated for his artistry and technical ability.
For more information, we encourage you to seek out Mitchell’s book, Looking for Mr. Gilbert. In the meantime, this revew offers a lot of information.