1879 - 1957
Lang was born in 1879 in Ohringen, Wurttemberg, Germany, as one of eleven siblings. Before immigrating to the United States, Lang would work for a private taxidermist in Germany, at the University of Zurich, and at the Fasse et Cie in Paris. In 1903 he came to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Four of his other siblings would also come to the United States. At the Museum he acted as a taxidermist in the department of presentations. In 1906 he was asked to represent the Museum on Richard Tjader’s British East Africa Expedition. He would act as collector, taxidermist and photographer for the expedition. In exchange for Lang’s expertise, Tjader had agreed to provide the Museum with most of his “trophies.” His success on this expedition led to his love of Africa as well as his excellent reputation. Curator J.A. Allen described the fine quality of the skins and material collected. “This is due to the care, skill and tireless energy of Mr. Herbert Lang, of the American Museum, who accompanied the expedition as preparateur, and to whom is mainly due the large number and fine condition of the specimens brought in by the expedition.” (1) After this success, Lang was specially chosen to lead the upcoming Congo Expedition of 1909. He personally requested young Museum assistant James Paul Chapin accompany him as second-in-command. Originally slated for two years, the journey ultimately lasted six years, with the men collecting fifty-four tons of material for the Museum and Lang contributing over 10,000 photographs to the collection. (2) Photography was a particular calling for Lang. This interest continued throughout his life; he would eventually be regarded as one of the more respected wildlife photographers of the day. Prior to the expedition, Lang had negotiated intellectual ownership of the images he took. Furthermore, he contributed his own money to pay for the photographic equipment and supplies. (3)
Chapin would later describe Lang as a father figure, admiring his almost “super-human” energy. (4) The reputation of his work ethic and masterful handling and management of staff and field work projects would follow Lang throughout his career. In the Congo he would often work late into the night to process his photographs and then early to hunt for specimens. Although not an ethnologist, Lang was asked to collect anthropological objects, as well as zoological specimens. In all these endeavors he led the team to create detailed and copious notes, context and supplementary material which added value to the subsequent research and exhibit.
The expedition’s return journey coincided with the onset of World War I. The post master at Avakubi announced it, and declared that although Lang was German, he obviously didn’t start the war, so suggested they all go on as friends just as before. (5)However, as a German national, it was necessary for Lang to take a circuitous route back to the United States. He extended his stay in Africa, securing the remainder of the materials, then traveled to Lisbon, after which he found passage to New York. After the return to the US, Lang continued to work for the Museum. Although he was not an academically-tutored scientist he was eventually promoted to Assistant, then Associate Curator in the Department of Mammalogy. He worked to process the materials collected in the Congo and oversee the scientific publications. At this time he also assisted with many mountings for the Akeley Hall.
Lang published extensively, not only scientific reports but also expedition-related reports and recollections. He was a member of the Explorer’s Club and helped them develop their library collection. (6) Lang would accompany the British Guiana Expedition of 1922-23 and the Vernay Angola Expedition of 1925. It was after this expedition that Lang chose to stay in Africa, thus ending his direct employment by AMNH. As described in the Annual Report: “Mr. Lang, upon the conclusion of field work in connection with the Vernay Angola Expedition, began an extended reconnaissance of African areas in which he had not hitherto been able to make observations. At the close of 1925 he is still in the field. His itinerary since leaving Angola includes visits to southern and so eastern Africa.” (7) He nevertheless maintained a relationship with the Museum and began a working relationship with the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. Lang he would ultimately become one of the most regarded photographers of South Africa, his credits are frequently seen, and he published a number of pictorial calendars. (8) Lang went on the Vernay Kalahari (or Vernay-Lang Kalahari) Expedition. This expedition aimed to jointly serve the Field Museum, the Transvaal Museum, the British Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. About 1935 Lang married Mrs. Sherwood, the widow of a close friend and mother of four. Her husband had asked Lang to care for his family after his death. The family owned the Eaton Hall Hotel in Pretoria; Lang became involved in its management until he and his wife retired in 1955. He passed away in Pretoria, South Africa in 1957.
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