From Arctic tundra to the Rockies, Tom Mangelsencaptures the best of nature and wildlife photography
The sun is fading over the Rocky Mountains on a late winter Friday afternoon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Tom Mangelsen, a powerful man in his mid-50s, is tucked away in his downtown studio, surrounded by 2,500 boxes of film he has shot and developed in the past few years but not yet had time to review. With his whirlwind schedule this spring and summer, he's unlikely to catch up anytime soon.
By the end of June, he'll have released a new catalog, published a new book and opened his thirteenth Images of Nature photo gallery, this time in Kirkland, Wash. He'll miss the late April opening gala, however. That week he'll be spending his evenings huddling in a bamboo thicket in China, hoping to photograph pandas.
Recently named Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photographers Association, Mangelsen is enjoying a career that's at full gallop. The reason is simple. He long ago learned that a nature photographer pleases his fans by getting out of town.
The great outdoors found its way into Tom Mangelsen's heart at an early age. Born the second of four boys and raised on Nebraska's Platte River, Mangelsen was an avid hunter, as were his father and brothers. He won a world goose-calling championship as a teenager, but it was much later that he answered a call himself — to become a professional photographer.
In 1969, he graduated from Nebraska's Doane College with a biology degree. That year a friend of Mangelsen's returned from Vietnam with an Asahi Pentax SLR he'd purchased at a military PX in Guam. Mangelsen started using the camera to shoot waterfowl around the Platte. "I grew up shooting geese," he says, "and I was just trying to extend the hunting season."
A year later, he packed the Pentax with him when he moved to Boulder, Colo., to pursue graduate studies in wildlife biology. There he "spent a couple of years being a hippie in the mountains," living in an $80-a-month mining shack.
In 1971, he crossed paths with a cinematographer from Boulder who was shooting wildlife films. "I told him I was interested in photography, and he asked me to work for him. I did that for about six years," he says.
Mangelsen's Rocky Mountain high peaked in 1975, the year one of his films for National Geographic, titled Flight of the Whooping Crane, bagged him an Emmy nomination. He followed that up with Cranes of the Grey Wind for the BBC and PBS's Nature series. Then he turned away from shooting film at 24 frames a second.
Call of the Wild
For the next decade, Mangelsen spent more and more time in the wild western United States and Canada, making still photographs of grizzlies, polar bears and any other large carnivores he was lucky enough to confront with a camera.
In those years he lived lean and grew wise as he honed his marketing skills through bitter setbacks that could have broken him. Taking his queue from a mentor, famed wildlife painter Owen Gromme, he tried selling limited editions of his photos, as Gromme did of his own oil paintings. He was rebuffed by art houses he approached in New York, Boston and even Denver. "The art galleries looked at wildlife photography as a kind of a non-art form," he says.
Subsisting on sporadic magazine assignments and crumbs earned by selling prints one by one at art fairs, Mangelsen scraped together enough grub for his first Nikon. He then set about slowly building a reputation for nature images that explore the personalities and relationships of animals in their environment, rather than just documenting their existence.
Tired of the art fair scene — it ate up weekends he would have rather spent in the wild — he opened a kiosk display at the Denver airport in 1976. Buoyed by moderate sales of his fine-art prints, he etched a plan to open kiosks at every major U.S. airport. The next one he opened was in Chicago's O'Hare airport, where , he says, "somebody stole most of the pictures the first week. Just broke the frames and ripped them off the wall."
To get closer to the big game in Yellowstone, he moved from Colorado to Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1978. There he rented a small studio, upstairs on the second floor, off the town square. Across the hall, he rented an office space that he later turned into a gallery. "It was good 'cause I could run over from my office and not have to hire any employees."
He tried opening kiosks in the Minnesota, Atlanta and St. Louis airports, but none had enough success to erase the Chicago setback. Mangelsen soon wandered back to the summer art fair circuit.
While showing his work in Park City, Utah, he noticed a small building that was empty on Main Street. He rented it and, in 1985, that space became his first Images of Nature gallery. He opened the next one in La Jolla, Calif., and ten others followed over the next 15 years. The new gallery in Kirkland, just east of Seattle, will be his thirteenth.
Mangelsen's Images of Nature galleries range in size from 1,500 to 3,500 square feet. Six are owned through partnerships with friends; the others are owned outright by Mangelsen. All feature two major shows of new work a year and regularly display selections from his catalog that are tuned to the natural surroundings of each gallery. The one in La Jolla has more California images, for instance, while the one in Denver carries more Rocky Mountain images.
While the galleries are best known for displaying Mangelsen's oversized prints, more and more sales are coming from his wide assortment of calendars, posters, videos and richly illustrated coffee-table and children's books. His thrice-yearly catalogs, which feature his current work but dip into his backstock of more than 500,000 images, also offer his books for direct sale.
Over the past 15 years, Mangelsen's growing marketing savvy has financed trips around the world, including a dozen annual visits to the shores of Canada's Hudson Bay to document polar bears as they await the spring thaw.
A Life of Their Own
Mangelsen's books — on polar bears, brown bears, eagles and even puffins — pepper the listings of Amazon.com, placing higher than most in their categories. His first book, Images of Nature, published in 1987, has sold more than 150,000 copies. His popular Spring, one of the Season series written with poet Ron Hirschi, has sold 20,000 copies and is being reissued in Spanish.
Mangelsen is hard pressed to explain the success of some of his books over others. Says Hirschi, who has collaborated with Mangelsen on more than a half-dozen children's books, "In our society you've usually got to hit people over the head to get attention. Tom kind of quietly goes about his business showing us beauty.
"On the cover of our Time for Playing," says Hirschi, "we have a couple of polar bears that are wrestling, but they are hugging really. I don't think that's the usual image of polar bears we have.
"And Tom has a great sequence with a fox and a magpie in the same photo. The magpie is teasing the fox. I've written that into a book. In the first place, probably 95 percent of the kids in America don't know what a magpie is. They get to see that. Then they get to see this fox who thinks he can catch him.
"With Tom's photos, you don't need a whole lot of words. That's what those of us who write picture books strive for. Hopefully my words don't get in the way very much.
"The one picture I always stop on is a sea otter that is sleeping. That sums up a lot right there. Here's a sea otter in the wild sound asleep, and Tom is not very far away, he's got a camera, and the otter just pulled some kelp around itself and started snoring. I think that's very cool. I have to admit I have not asked Tom how he did it. He could well have given the otter a bowl of ice cream or a Milk-Bone, for all I know."
Hirschi is joking, of course; Mangelsen is one of the most prominent purists in nature photography today. Whether for a print, a poster or a book, he'd sooner put his foot in a bear trap than bring home one false image from the wild.
Spirit of the Rockies
Mangelsen's ideas for books arise from the mist, most often after a sudden realization that he has amassed enough slides of a subject to warrant a more substantial presentation. Such was the case with Spirit of the Rockies, a moving tribute — and possibly an epitaph — for a female mountain lion and three cubs that wandered into the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole on Valentine's Day 1999. The cats went into a den about 160 yards off a main road and stayed there for 42 days.
"I had never seen a mountain lion before," Mangelsen says. "They are rare as hell. As soon as I heard about it, I went out there and spent that day. And every day after that I kept thinking, ‘Well, they'll probably leave tomorrow,' so I'd spend 10 to 12 hours a day there. I didn't go to the studio except to get more film."
"I went there every day for 42 days. I had to leave to go get an award from the governor of Nebraska. But other than those two days, I was there every day for 42 days…. because that was such a rare experience, I didn't want to miss it.
"All I wanted to get was a handful of good pictures for prints. But after spending that much time, I photographed golden eagles, coyotes and a couple of wolf packs that came down from Yellowstone that also came to the refuge. I really didn't plan on it. It ended up that after 42 days, one of my associates, Cara Blessley, thought I had enough work that warranted doing a smallish book. She became the writer of it."
Victims of Progress
A year later, the family of lions celebrated in Spirit of the Rockies has most likely been killed by hunters. It's a grim fact that both angers Mangelsen and motivates his participation in several nature groups, the foremost of which is the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
Formerly an advocate merely of slow growth in Jackson Hole, the Alliance has now taken on broader environmental aims in a bid to save wildlife and environments in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Earlier this spring, Mangelsen led the Alliance's opposition to planned rulings by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to raise the kill quota for mountain lions in the Jackson Hole area from five to 12. Before Mangelsen encountered the mountain lions he photographed, it had been years since any big cats had been seen in the area, so he felt certain the Spirit cats would be among the first "harvested." The quota was raised, and 12 cats were killed by the end of February; the Spirit cats have not been seen since.
"It's pretty pathetic," Mangelsen fumes. "There were hundreds of people who went out to watch the cats and who had gotten so much joy out of it. The Game and Fish Department, in their wisdom, decided that the hunters had more rights, basically. Those are the constituents they react to, more than the general public."
In many ways, nature photography is as close to hunting as one can come without carrying a gun. That's why, Mangelsen says, nature photographers and hunters can and should co-exist. Both have an interest in preserving as many wild spaces and species as possible.
If Mangelsen expresses his concerns forcefully, it may be because he sees his profession being attacked from within. Nature photography may face its biggest threat from the many aspiring nature photographers who take the low road to "game farms," where they can pick off photos of all kinds of wild animals, especially large predators, with all the heart-pounding excitement of a Big Mac attack.
"Originally," says Mangelsen, "the game farms would have a few species like mountain lions and grizzly bears that would be used in Hollywood movies. Trained animals like Bart the Bear that was used in Grizzly Adams. That did not trouble me a big deal.
"But what's happened is still photographers have started going to these places and supporting them. And for a half-day and $300, you can get a major species and a minor species. Say a mountain lion and a raccoon. And the next day you can shoot a badger and a lynx. And the next day, a snow leopard and a coyote. Next day, a wolf and a bobcat. So in a week's period, and with about $1200 bucks in your pocket, you can shoot all the major mammals in North America.
"They keep [the animals] in jails, literally, barred cages that are about 4 by 8 by 6 feet high. They stack them up on this flatbed and ask you what would you like today, and you select your animal like you pick hamburgers off of a menu.
"Then they take these cherry pickers and take them into these compounds that look like their natural settings. Half of these animals are trained. The wolf will howl when you want him to howl, bears will stand up on their hind legs. And they look like the natural settings, and these photographers will shoot the pictures and send them off to get published in places like National Wildlife, where until a year or so ago they didn't require captions.
"To me it doesn't excuse the images being used in magazines like that. Most people don't read the captions, don't really understand what "captive" or "controlled" means. It's so confusing, and people don't really know they are kept in these animal jails. People think they are well taken care of if they are fed and watered. You put a wolf in a little 4 x 8 jail, that's not taking care of him.
"I'm a big advocate of straight photography. If a person sees an image and believes it to be of a wild animal, it should be. National Geographic has this policy where they don't publish photos of animals that are in captivity, and they don't do digital manipulation of animals or move backgrounds. National Wildlife is just the opposite: half the images, or a large proportion of the images, are from game farms. I told the editor of National Wildlife that it should be called National Game Farm magazine. Seriously. You would think that a magazine called National Wildlife would be actually wild life. It only makes sense. But animals are not wild if they are kept in cages."
For Love of the Game
Ultimately, says Mangelsen, it's not the hunters or the audience or even the animals that get cheated because of game farm photography, it's the nature photographer him- or herself."I didn't get in the business to shoot animals in cages," he says. "I did it because I love the outdoors, I love the wild experience, I love nature. People who shoot animals in cages are missing the point.
"Take this picture I shot of a moose in Alaska last fall. I could do the same thing on the computer in an afternoon: take an animal from a game farm, stick him in a natural setting. What the hell. I don't understand how you can get much joy from that."
But listen to how the image was really captured, and you get to share a moment no game farm can sell you.
"The moose was lying down," says Mangelsen. "I spent a week in the woods, just watching that particular animal and his harem. He was lying down and the light was really crappy. I saw a little sliver of light on the horizon, and I told my buddy, "Let's just wait until sunset. We might get a little light right at the end of the day.' It was kind of snowing on the peaks. And sure enough the light peeked into the crack, and the moose stood up, and it was pretty magical.
"That's the joy of doing it. When you have the patience, you have enough knowledge of animal behavior, you put it all together, and if you have some luck to go with it, you can make a special image."