Bird Photography – the legacy of Frank Blackburn by Paul Sterry

Bird Photographer of the Year Founding Director Paul Sterry remembers photographer Frank Blackburn, a pioneering wildlife photographer of past years whose images are still being published today, decades after they were taken.

A few weeks ago Freya Coursey, one of Young Bird Photographer of the Year’s ambassadors and judges, wrote an excellent blog about the origins of bird photography. In it she highlighted the pioneering work of brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton; they worked in the 1890s and are generally reckoned to be the first bird photographers, certainly the first professional ones. In their wake came legendary Eric Hosking whose photographic career spanned the middle and latter part of the 20th Century. His commitment and enthusiasm produced in a vast collection of images, a number of classic books, and an extremely personal sacrifice – he famously lost an eye to a Tawny Owl. 

A nesting Willow Tit taken in Scotland. ©Frank Blackburn/Nature Photographers Ltd

A nesting Willow Tit taken in Scotland. ©Frank Blackburn/Nature Photographers Ltd

Towards the latter half of the 20th Century film cameras and lenses became much more portable and affordable with options including 35mm and medium-format being favoured by the next generation of wildlife photographers. A leading light in this new band was Frank Blackburn and it was my privilege to know him. Most people who knew him would describe him as a ‘character’ in the nicest possible sense: he was passionate about the Surrey Heaths which were his stomping ground, and had a dogged and single-minded approach to photography. But this was balanced by a generosity of spirit and a willingness to share information with others and pass on his enthusiasm. On top of this he had an eye for a picture and a first rate ornithological grounding.

A Green Woodpecker visiting its nesthole in Wales. ©Frank Blackburn/Nature Photographers Ltd

A Green Woodpecker visiting its nesthole in Wales. ©Frank Blackburn/Nature Photographers Ltd

Frank had excellent fieldcraft skills and he knew his birds. Using hides, often in extremely challenging circumstances, and his beloved medium-format cameras, he had a passion for nest photography which was balanced with empathy for his subjects. Together with wildlife photographers Michael Gore, Don Smith and Derick Scott, Frank founded the photolibrary Nature Photographers Ltd. I took over the reins a couple of decades ago and today it remains a thriving independent concern run with fellow BPOTY director Rob Read.

Taken closer to home – almost on his doorstep – this Nightjar was photographed on Surrey heathland that backed onto where he lived; it was an image that Frank was extremely proud of taking. ©Frank Blackburn/Nature Photographers Ltd

Taken closer to home – almost on his doorstep – this Nightjar was photographed on Surrey heathland that backed onto where he lived; it was an image that Frank was extremely proud of taking. ©Frank Blackburn/Nature Photographers Ltd

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