Kiernan's 'primate images'

on display in Schatten

Frank Kiernan finds it somewhat ironic that many of his most renowned photographs are of adorable infant primates being cuddled by their parents. In reality, those shots are few and far between, said Kiernan, who has been photographing primates at the Yerkes Primate Research Center for 30 years.

Kiernan, whose work is part of an exhibit called "Primate Images" on display through May 30 in Woodruff Library's Schatten Gallery, spends the majority of his time producing photos and illustrations to accompany articles written for scientific journals by Yerkes researchers. His work also appears in the Yerkes employee publication Inside Yerkes, in addition to being displayed throughout the Yerkes facility.

Capturing primate images

The compelling images of primates Kiernan produces belie the great difficulty and tedium involved in actually getting the shots. "They simply don't respond to direction at all," Kiernan quipped. "You can't tell them to go over here, stand there, look this way, smile at me. It might take over an hour to get one photograph. That's one of the reasons I have a motor drive on my camera. There may be only a 30-second window when you snap off three or four shots, then you get nothing."

Waiting for that perfect shot to happen is no picnic, either. "You have to be sitting on ready and primed," Kiernan said. "You have to be focused and pay attention to the composition, and be sure there's nothing blocking the shot. It's just watchful waiting, and it takes a lot of patience."

Although the intimate feel of many Kiernan primate photos might lead some viewers to believe the photographer interacts closely with his subjects, just the opposite is true. "When I'm trying to get photos of them, I don't want to interact with them," he said. "I try to be part of the furniture. Because I'm a stranger standing outside their cage, they'll come over and threaten me or bang on the fence or something like that. I just stand there as immobile and unresponsive as I can be. After a few minutes they decide that I'm no fun and they go back to their business. At that point, I can start tying to get some good pictures."

The researches and caretakers who interact with the Yerkes primates on a daily basis frequently form strong attachments to the animals, Kiernan said. "But I only see them occasionally. So the quality of that interaction is not very high."

The path to Emory

Photographing primates was not the career Kiernan had in mind when he enrolled in the Case Institute of Technology after high school. He had planned to be a physics major, but dropped out of Case after two years and returned to his hometown of East Liverpool, Ohio, where he got a job in a titanium plant doing vacuum melding and operating a mass spectrometer.

Kiernan also had a strong interest in photography as an adolescent. "When I was 13 I bought a developing kit so I could develop my own film," said Kiernan, who also occasionally photographs art glass and pottery for dealers. "I did that as a hobby for some time and I was the photographer for my high school yearbook. That led to a job at a local photography studio, which I kept doing part-time even after I went away to school and came back to work at the titanium plant. It was a small studio in a small town, so there wasn't a lot going on. But it gave me access to a lot of nice equipment."

In 1960 Kiernan moved to Atlanta and applied for a job at Georgia Tech. "I checked out some of the technical jobs, but they didn't have anything at the time," he recalled. "They did have a job open in the photo lab." Kiernan was hired not only because of his background at the photography studio, but also because of the work he had done the previous summer filming horse races in Charleston, W.V. "We had pictures on the screen two minutes after the last horse crossed the finish line," he explained. The film was used to help settle disputes raised by jockeys and owners.

During his seven years at Georgia Tech as one of four staff photographers, Kiernan worked with a variety of departments including hydraulic engineering, physics and radar/electronics. On one assignment, Kiernan crawled into the core of a new nuclear reactor to photograph some of its parts. He also processed training films for legendary football coach Bobby Dodd.

Thirty years after making the move to Emory and after thousands of great photos, Kiernan still enjoys his work, even if he does have to wait for the perfect shot.

-Dan Treadaway

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