Seeing Eye to Eye with Wildlife

Frans Lanting has an uncanny knack for getting close to wild animals and capturing their private lives on film

08-01-1998 // Mark Wexler

Frans Lanting is not against swallowing a little salt water if it means getting close to wildlife. "I´m sure I looked a little strange," he says, referring to an afternoon a few years ago when he crawled on his hands and knees through 50 yards of surf to photograph the shorebirds pictured on the previous pages.
Camping near an isolated Mexican lagoon, the California-based nature photographer had noticed that the birds gathered every day at high tide in the same spot at the edge of the water. "By flattening out and moving slowly, one inch at a time toward the birds, I avoided upsetting them," says Lanting, who took the photo while lying prone in the tide and using his elbows as a tripod for his camera.

An avid student of animal behavior, Lanting knew that the birds prefer landing into the wind and he was able to click the shutter on his camera as one marbled gotwit looked straight at him while descending into the water. "For a split second, we were eye to eye," adds Lanting. "It was a serendipitous moment."

Serendipitous perhaps, but like hundreds of other images taken by the acclaimed photographer over the past two decades, the shorebird image is a classic example of Lanting´s knack for insinuating himself into an animal´s habitat without disturbing the creature. "He has an uncanny ability to anticipate an animal´s behavior while at the same time composing striking pictures," says National Wildlife Photo Editor John Nuhn.

A native of Holland, Lanting moved to the United States in the late 1970s to do post-graduate work at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but soon left school to pursue a career photographing nature. In the years since, he has captured wildlife on film in some of the most remote regions of the United States and in such distant places as Borneo´s northern forests, Botswana´s Okavango Delta and South Georgia Island near Antarctica. During those travels, he has had surprisingly few problems with his subjects despite working close to them.

"Every animal gives off signals, often through its body language, that tell you when to back off," observes Lanting, who spends considerable time letting wild creatures become accustomed to his presence before photographing them. "You have to learn how to interpret those signals and then alter your behavior to help put an animal at ease." For the photographer, that may mean lying still for hours on end or getting down on all fours and pretending to graze like a herbivore.

Lanting´s scariest experiences have had more to do with unskilled charter pilots, third-world traffic and so-called "little menaces"--microbes, bacteria and viruses. A few years ago, for instance, he contracted malaria while working in Madagascar but didn´t know it until after he left the island and went to Antarctica to photograph penguins. That´s where the malaria took hold of the photographer, who camped on the ice by himself. "By the time the boat came back for me days later," he recalls, "I was too weak to stand and walk."

Over the years, Lanting has learned to respect the individuality of each animal. "You can make a lot of generalizations about the behavior of a species but I´ve found that each creature tends to respond to its environment in a slightly different way," he says. "And that´s why I try to get eye to eye with wildlife. For me, it´s a way to portray each animal as the individual it is."

Getting up close and personal, the photographer admits, involves an element of risk because he can spend a lot of time pursuing a photo that he never succeeds in getting. But as the images displayed on these pages demonstrate, Lanting often is successful. "I hope," he says, "that my experiences can be a bridge between the animal world and the millions of people who will never crouch before an elephant"--or crawl 50 yards across a beach to get close to shorebirds.

Frans Lanting´s most recent book is Eye to Eye (Taschen, 1997).
For more information, see the photographer´s web site:

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