It took photographer Tom Mangelsen, along with a staff of three people, a year to whittle down his more than 4 million images to about 1200, then 500, then 300. And then it was in the graphic designer’s hand make about 140 pictures fit in Mangelsen’s new book, The Last Great Wild Places.
The book includes a forward by Mangelsen’s friend Jane Goodall, as well as text by Todd Wilkinson. It is a retrospective of Mangelsen’s more than 40 years of photography.
It features new work, including the cover which shows Grand Teton National Park’s grizzly bear No. 399 crossing a river, as well as images created through the years Mangelsen never printed, along with a few Mangelsen classics. The Last Great Wild Places is organized by ecosystems. The images come from across the globe, from Botswana to Antarctica to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Peaks to Plains caught up with Mangelsen to talk about his career, work and new book.
When did you get interested in photography?
Mangelsen: I picked it up when I was in college. I grew up in Nebraska. My dad was a hunter and fisherman and as long as I can remember I was out hunting and fishing with him, hunting ducks and geese and rabbits and pheasants. From those early experiences using decoys and blinds and preparing for the fall hunt, I learned about just observing and being patient and waiting for the moment. I didn’t buy a camera until I was 23. I had just graduated from Doane College, a small liberal arts school where I got a degree in biology, thinking I was going to do something in wildlife biology and research.
I met a guy named Paul Johnsgard from the University of Nebraska. He was the world authority on water fowl — ducks, geese and swans — and he was doing a book on waterfowl in North America and I asked him to take me on as a grad student. He said ‘Well your grades aren’t really that great.’ And I said ‘But I did win the World Goose Calling Championship – twice.’ And he said, ‘Well, we do make exceptions.’ From him I learned a lot about the behavior of birds. My first job was as a cinematographer making educational biology films for the University of Colorado. I wanted to do that singular image that showed the animal in its habitat. I vacillated between film and stills and found stills the most rewarding.
What are your favorite animals to photograph?
Mangelsen: Polar bears and brown bears are my favorite species to photograph, along with … cougars and jaguars. I love all the big cats in Africa and, of course, the wolves. I think wolves are, unfortunately, being demonized and that’s the attitude people have against all the large predators like wolves, cougars and bears. I try to spend a lot of time to bring better awareness to those species in particular.
What made you move to Jackson?
Mangelsen: The beauty of the place, certainly. The mountains. The wildlife. I lived in Boulder and there wasn’t much wildlife left in the front range of Colorado. I’d come here and see coyotes and foxes and wolves and bears and I fell in love with it. I met Mardy Murie and I was sitting in her backyard photographing wildlife and I realized ‘I want to be here.’ I went home and moved six months later. That was 1978.
You’ve been vocal in wildlife issues, from grizzly bear delisting to criticizing Grand Teton National Park’s elk hunt. Does that come from being a wildlife photographer, or are these views you’ve always held?
Mangelsen: Growing up in Nebraska, my dad was probably the first conservationist, or environmentalist, that I knew. My dad fought to save the Platte River from going dry. That influenced my thinking about conservation.
I quit hunting 15 years ago. You need to protect what you love. I sort of traded the gun in for the camera long before that. The more I learned about the animals I photographed the less interest I had in shooting them. I’m not against hunting. I think it should be done ethically and for meat. And not bears and wolves and jaguars that no one eats and are important in the ecosystem.
I watched a pack of wolves and saw how tight the family bonds are and I realized if you shoot the alpha female you’ve destroyed part of the pack. The more you know the about an animal, the more you appreciate it and the more you love it, and when you love animals you hate to see them trapped or snared or poisoned. I just can’t believe that someone could spend time watching wolves or cougars or bears and want to kill them. People are threatened by the competition of a wolf or bear killing an elk and there are plenty of elk. And the predator is supposed to regulate the prey, and it’s a much more natural way of regulating. We’ve got it all ass-backwards when we are killing predators and having hunts on the elk refuge and hunts in the park. It’s insanity. It’s outdated. The elk refuge is basically a farm for raising elk and there are too many, and when chronic wasting disease hits the elk refuge — which is just down the road, it’s marching this way — it’s going to be disastrous.
What do you think defines your work?
Mangelsen: I try to catch the spirit, you might say, or the character, or the gesture of an animal. A lot of people do that, I have no claim on that, but I watch an animal for a long enough time to be able to know or predict where it might go and I’m very aware of the background. A lot of new photographers want to capture the trophy animal, and I did that at one time and grew out of it. Now I back off and see what would a smaller lens do, and what about the surroundings? Most people don’t take enough time. I might sit and watch an elephant or lion all day. And I’m not there to take a picture and say, ‘Got it, let’s go to the wildebeest. Let’s go get the cheetah.’ I’m not into collecting numbers. It takes a lot of time and patience and knowledge of observation.
Do you have a favorite shot you’ve captured?
Mangelsen: I have a number of favorite shots; many are in my book. There are classics like Catch of the Day. That’s one of about 20 images that were ‘must-be-included’ ones.
You’ve photographed all over the world, yet made Wyoming home. What makes the wildlife so special here?
Mangelsen: It has the diversity, especially of the large animals. Nebraska has the birds, but it doesn’t have the bears and wolves and elk. Any day you can drive into the park and see these major animals and you can go to the Oxbow bend and see swans or river otters. You can go out any day and see a moose. That’s remarkable.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
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