Last week Vanessa Bateman presented her research on documentary animal photography and the formation of the National Elk Refuge in the panel she co-chaired with Maia Nichols, “Activating Animals in the Visual Archive” at the annual conference of the Universities Art Association of Canada (UAAC). This year, UAAC was held in Banff, Alberta, a suitable setting to present this research — with multiple sightings of elk and warning signs about bull elk everywhere.
How can the photographic archive contribute to a better understanding of animal history? This paper discusses the intersections between animal photography, hunting, and wildlife conservation in Wyoming during the “elk problem”—that is, the mass starvation and death of thousands of elk due to Euro-American settlement between 1890 and 1912. This is a case study where the photography of animals has the power to change the lives of those represented, where photographic history meets animality and environmental ethics. It looks at the photography of hunting guide and rancher Stephen N. Leek of Jackson Hole, Wyoming who began documenting the demise of elk and community efforts to feed them—images that were widely circulated in publications and traveling slide lectures as a way to both advocate for their protection and promote his work and the region to sporting tourists. Due in part to Leek’s advocacy, the National Elk Refuge was established in 1912, annually home to one of the largest elk herds in the world each winter, where they have been supplementally fed for over a century. Leek’s images fostered a specific narrative about how elk should be understood, valued, and controlled—and by whom. Moving beyond human actors, however, this paper focuses on how the anthropocentric photographic archive can provide a glimpse of the animal experience of colonial-caused ecological change.