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Chicago Academy of Sciences: Sidney Downey

January 17, 2013

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Since November I have had the privilege to work on an expansive collection of 16mm films belonging to the Chicago Academy of Sciences. The Chicago Academy of Sciences, dubbed “the first Museum in the West,” was founded in 1857 to give scientists and nature aficionados a place to study and share the specimens they collected. Over the years, the Academy has amassed numerous collections ranging in subjects (from entomology to paleontology) and formats (from still photography to ancient fossils). The Academy also operates the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Neighborhood. (learn more about the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ fascinating history, here)

Spanning the 1930s to the mid 1970s, their audio-visual collection covers a fascinating scope from a variety of filmmakers. Most of the films were shot in Kodachrome, and the stock’s excellent dye retention keeps them continuously charming.

One of the prominent series within the Academy’s collection is that of Sidney Downey. Downey began as a hunter in Kenya in the 1930s, but transitioned into photographic safari. Downey’s sprawling films capture wildlife in the Serengeti, with intimate views into pride dynamics and breathtaking landscapes. These stills are taken from his General Safari films, shot between 1959-1974 in Lang’ata, Amboseli, Masai Mara, Nakuru, Marsabit, Elmenteita, Tsavo, Shimba Hills, and Samburu in Kenya and Manyara, Ruaha, and Ngorongoro in Tanzania.

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Downey’s film in its original can

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Notes accompanying Downey’s film

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Downey loved sunrises and sunsets over the Serengeti– he begins and ends almost all his films with them!

Downey’s collection of over 30 films are only a fraction of the gems in the Chicago Academy of Sciences. Up next: the ethnographic portraits of C.L. Frederick!


— Lauren Alberque



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