Scene Stealer

Tom Mangelsen goes to remarkable lengths to capture wildlife on film.

10-01-1997 // Michael Finkel

"I really don´t like blue-sky days," says Tom Mangelsen. "I like lousy weather."

Standing in his Jackson, Wyoming, gallery, the veteran photographer points to some large prints hanging on the walls. One shows a wolf in a driving rainstorm, its fur matted like a wharf rat; another a moose braving a mid-winter blizzard, snow collecting in the concavities of its antlers. "I like snow and fog and incoming storm clouds," he adds.

Despite his words, Tom Mangelsen is neither glum nor gloomy. Rather, he is an unrepentant maverick who pursues wildlife in the most challenging conditions. His fondness for inclement weather is rooted solely in artistic rationale: He seeks to capture creatures on film while they are immersed in the arduous business of survival. "I´m not interested in the cutesy wildlife image," he says. "Where´s the sense of story in cute?"

While other photographers may argue that point, few would question Mangelsen´s commitment to photographing only animals in the wild or his obsession with finding the right habitats to serve as the backdrops for his work. Such unrelenting commitment has helped make him one of the world´s most successful wildlife photographers. In recent years, an entire business has literally grown up around him. His company, Images of Nature, now operates 12 galleries from California to Hong Kong and collectors actively seek his prints.

To meet the demand, and satisfy his own hunger for new photographic challenges, Mangelsen travels nine months a year. In one 12-week period last spring, for instance, he went to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska (to photograph bald eagles and sea otters), then to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico (whales, dolphins and sea lions), followed by a trip to Hudson Bay in Canada (polar bears, arctic foxes, and ptarmigan), then on to Arizona (songbirds), and finally to the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park (wolves). During that period, he took more than 15,000 photographs.

The 51-year-old Mangelsen grew up on the banks of the Platte River near Grand Island, Nebraska. His father, Harold, was an avid sportsman. He carved goose decoys and built intricate goose blinds and perfected his goose-calling skills. He would sometimes sit in his blind for an entire weekend without taking aim at a bird. "All that mattered was seizing the perfect opportunity, no matter how long the wait," recalls Mangelsen, who apparently inherited his father´s patience; the photographer often sits for 10 hours at a stretch in one spot, waiting for the right moment to trip the shutter on his camera. He also inherited his father´s wildlife-calling skills; as a teenager, the younger Mangelsen won the official World Goose-Calling Championship.

In all, Harold and Margaret Mangelsen had four sons and one dime store, Harold Mangelsen and Sons, located in Omaha. Three of the boys eventually went to work in the store, which is still in business. Tom moved to Colorado. He worked on graduate degrees in zoology and wildlife biology, but photography intrigued him more than conducting research. His passion for Yellowstone National Park and the scenic Grand Tetons took him to Jackson, Wyoming, in 1978.

Mangelsen´s photos are not stills-they´re pauses. "It seems as if the subjects were cooperating in a conscious way," biologist Margaret Murie wrote in an introduction to a book of Mangelsen´s work, Images of Nature. "This has to be called ´luck,´ I suppose, but I think the photographer must have a magical sensitivity that leads him to the right spot at the right moment."

The truth is more prosaic. Mangelsen is incredibly persistent. In the late 1970s, for example, Mangelsen decided he had to have a photograph of a newborn sandhill crane. Sandhills nest, among other places, in western Alaska. So Mangelsen went to Alaska. To get to the nesting region he had to charter two bush flights and hitch a boat ride with an Inuit family. It took him 15 days of searching, hiking 10 miles a day on tundra marsh, to find a nest with an egg in it. "It was like walking on bowling balls," recalls the photographer, who lost some 20 pounds during the trip.

When he spotted a nest, Mangelsen erected a series of blinds and spent three weeks gradually moving his camp forward, until he was within photographing distance. Then he waited for four days, leaving his blind only to relieve himself. The rain was unceasing, and his food supply was nearly gone. Finally, the egg hatched. Mangelsen brought his camera to his eye, but there was so much condensation on the lens he couldn´t see a thing. The bird was out of the nest before he could take a single shot. His trip was over, but the photographer wasn´t about to give up. Ten years later, on a river in Idaho, he found another sandhill nest. This time, he got the picture. "It was well worth the effort," he says.

In recent years, Mangelsen has increasingly focused his attentions on capturing the natural environment on film. "Inclusion of the habitat is sort of my signature," he says. "I usually discover the background I like before I find the animal. I´ll find a place and I´ll figure out when the light is right or when the tide is right. I´ll go there time after time, day after day." The photographer knows that if he sits long enough at a location, the animal he is looking for will eventually come by and he will be there waiting with his camera.

To get his well-known photo of an Alaskan brown bear about to swallow a migrating salmon, Mangelsen waited in the same location all day for more than a week. He has spent six weeks camped in arctic tundra, only to come away with just one good polar bear photo. On another occasion, he sat patiently outside a polar bear den, waiting for a mother and her cubs to emerge. Five days passed before he realized he was staking out an empty den. Getting into the appropriate habitat, however, means coping with unexpected problems. Over the years, Mangelsen has battled mosquito infestations and nine-day rain showers, sand storms and onslaughts of snow and sleet. Once, he discovered two grizzly bears wrestling in the vestibule of his tent. And last March, while working in Canada in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, he suffered frostbite on his fingers and cheeks. "My cameras all froze up on me and quit working," says Mangelsen, who has never suffered serious injury while photographing wildlife.

"I work in terrible weather so often," he notes, "I don´t think of it as terrible weather. I think of it as normal weather." He admits that things would be easier for him if he confined his work mostly to the summer months. But summer, Mangelsen maintains, is his least-favorite season for taking photographs.


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