Originally published in Points West magazine
A Life in the Wild: Acclaimed Photographer Shares Favorite Shots
By Mark Davis
Ed. note: for Mangelsen’s own story behind each image, see the end of the article…
After waiting 23 days to catch a glimpse of Grizzly 399 and her four cubs, wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen almost missed the famously prolific mama bear and her family emerging from their den this spring. He had to soon leave his stakeout spot near the den site to drop off a friend at the airport.
The friend, who was in town working on a documentary about the celebrated bear, had been waiting day after day with Mangelsen near the bridge over Pilgrim Creek, in Grand Teton National Park, near her winter den. They whiled away the daylight hours reading, listening to news, and watching the drainage for 399 and her cubs to venture out after winter hibernation.
“I was three weeks early,” Mangelsen said, recounting the long wait to see 399, a globally celebrated bear he’s been documenting for the past 16 years, renowned for her skills as a mother and her relative tolerance for human crowds.
The film producer had been there for two weeks, hoping to catch the same post-hibernation moment. Wildlife photography and filmmaking are difficult tasks, often marked by days or weeks of absolute tedium, hopefully rewarded by a few brief moments of pure joy. At one point during the wait, Mangelsen’s assistant complained about listening to the same national news coverage for “the tenth time.”
“Can’t we listen to some music?” she pleaded.
But waiting for the perfect shot is nothing new to Mangelsen, an acclaimed wildlife photographer whose images have been seen by millions. He is accustomed to the “waiting game,” having spent the past five decades of his life creating iconic photographs that transcend language, culture, and geography. A Life in the Wild, a special exhibition of Mangelsen’s work, is on view at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West through July 31.
Grizzly 399 has been an important part of Mangelsen’s work, boosting his profile as a photographer and helping to generate massive awareness for conservation of grizzlies across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He gives the bear all the credit.
“She and her offspring have done more for bear conservation than any living or dead bear,” he said this spring by phone from his home in Jackson, Wyoming. “Because of that, she also has a lot of fans that will protect the species. And speak out about their conservation.”
It was conservation that inspired Mangelsen to pick up a camera long before digital photography and autofocus made the art form more accessible to the masses.
Born in the Central Flyway, on the Platte River Valley in Nebraska, Mangelsen grew up during a time when kids could roam freely to explore the great outdoors until the streetlights flickered to life. His parents, Harold and Berenice, ran a five and dime retail store in Ogallala, giving him the freedom to spend his days in the river bottoms and sand hills with his buddies, fishing, practicing their hunting skills with BB guns, and looking for arrowheads and buffalo skulls.
“I was footloose and fancy free,” he recalls. “More so than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Fishing and hunting were a cleverly disguised part of his education. Even at a young age, he learned the tenets of conservation, as his father led Mangelsen and his three brothers in improving habitat for waterfowl long before they knew the full impact of such actions. Every year, they would head to the sandy banks of the Platte River to watch the spring and fall migrations of lesser sandhill cranes and other waterfowl.
Mangelsen calls the cranes’ annual movement through the habitat—an estimated 400,000 or more passing across the region—one of the great migration events in the world.
After graduating from Doane University in the small Nebraska town of Crete, Mangelsen enrolled in graduate school at the University of Nebraska under the tutelage of renowned ornithologist and prolific author, Paul Johnsgard. Early on, Mangelsen was inspired to capture birds in flight on film.
“I wanted to show the habitat, the light with composition and gestures just like an artist might,” he said.
At the same time, he started seeing his world change. The wonderland of his youth was being plowed under and turned to crop production, right to the edges of exposed ditches, robbing the land of cover for wildlife.
“The native prairies are gone,” he said. “It breaks my heart.”
Mangelsen’s work through the years—starting when wildlife photography was limited by slower film speeds, manual-focus lenses, and less automated cameras—has earned him many prestigious accolades. He was named the 2011 Conservation Photographer of the Year by Nature’s Best Photography, placing his work in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He was also named one of the 40 Most Influential Nature Photographers by Outdoor Photography, and his image “Polar Dance” was selected by the International League of Conservation Photographers as one of the 40 Most Important Nature Photographs of All Time.
Among his most cherished honors, he was awarded Nikon’s Legend Behind the Lens recognition, and was presented with an honorary doctorate from Doane.
Mangelsen has published many books, produced several documentaries, and opened several photography galleries, including one just off the Town Square in Jackson, Wyoming.
National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore remembers being inspired by Mangelsen’s work early in his career.
“I first saw Tom’s work when his ‘Catch of the Day’ photo appeared on a wall at the Omaha Airport. I couldn’t believe it,” Sartore said.
“Here was a salmon not only frozen in mid-air, but it was actually inside a bear’s mouth, caught mid-leap above a waterfall in Alaska. It was not only an amazing moment, but perfectly executed, a true work of fine art,” Sartore said. “Many have tried to imitate that shot since then (including me), but none have come close. His work is simply that good.”
Sartore said in the years since, Mangelsen has repeatedly proven himself to be a true conservationist. “His work introduces the public to the natural world, trying to get them to care about all creatures, great and small. To me, there’s no higher calling.”
He said the quality and popularity of Mangelsen’s work is an important part of convincing the world to save our wildlife and wild places.
“Tom’s photographs show us a world worth saving, and prove there’s still time. But public support only happens if the public actually can picture all that’s at stake,” Sartore said. “Tom’s work has the ability to do just that, to bring people into the tent of conservation. Only then will they actually protect the wild spaces.”
Mangelsen’s personal activism as a conservationist and efforts as a photographer to promote wildlife appreciation have helped inspire countless activists willing to fight for the natural world. He leads by example, serving as a constant voice at public policy meetings and in personal relationships with stakeholders and officials charged with protecting the delicate balance between man and the environment.
A Life in the Wild features dozens of Mangelsen’s large-format, “legacy” images, personally selected from a portfolio amassed over the past five decades, and through his travels to all seven continents.
Mangelsen said the show was hard to narrow down from his many thousands of images. First, he edited the selections down to thousands of images, then hundreds and finally the final images. The selections include polar bears in the Arctic, gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park, moose in Alaska, and of course, plenty of grizzly bears.
Speaking of which, Mangelsen eventually met with success this spring, finally capturing images of Grizzly 399 and her four cubs near Pilgrim Creek. All it took was more than three weeks of patience, and a life in the wild.
More about each image…
Gentle Giant – The Silverback – Virunga Mountains, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, 2003
In seeing Mangelsen’s portrait Gentle Giant – The Silverback, it might be shocking for some viewers to contemplated that it was only a few generations ago that humans hunted mountain gorillas legally for sport. Still today, mountain gorillas are critically imperiled in the wild, their persistence threatened by bush meat hunters, poachers, accidental killing related to military conflicts in central Africa, and loss of habitat.
“I owe my dear friend, Dr. Jane Goodall, profound gratitude for not only educating the world about the higher intelligence of primates, but in making their plight very real to me. She was the one who foremost said that I could make a difference by blending wildlife photography with messages of conservation. No other photograph I’ve ever taken has caused more introspection. When I look at it, I see ourselves looking back. It is my deepest wish that when you peer into the eyes of this silverback, you, too, feel empathy.”
Bear River – McNeil River Bear Sanctuary, Alaska, 1992
The picturesque McNeil River and adjacent Mikfik Creek are legendary for its rendezvous of giant brown bears that assemble annually for the salmon run. While the bruins can be notoriously grumpy during those stretches of the year when wild foods are scarce, they seem to peacefully converge upon the McNeil and its tributaries, agreeing to put quarreling aside when there is an abundance of fish to share.
“I derive a huge amount of satisfaction when my photographs inform viewers about things they might not ordinarily consider. Here, it’s not just a meeting of bears around salmon in a breathtaking place. It’s a story about timing, of natural phenomena bringing together predator and prey as it’s been happening over eons. The cycles of nature are sophisticated and highly tuned. They function in ways we may never fully comprehend.”
First Light – Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 2010
In Jackson Hole, Ansel Adams executed one of his most heralded black and white landscape photographs ever at Snake River Overlook. Just up the river a spell, Mangelsen produced a composition said to rival that of Adams.
First Light – Grizzly Bear conveys a wilder mood of the same valley by featuring an iconic species that was largely absent from Jackson Hole in Adams’ time. The subject is the legendary Grizzly 399, the most famous mother bear in the world and the subject of Mangelsen’s award-winning book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek.”
“She appeared in front of me as if in a dream. I had gone to the Snake River at dawn on a beautiful autumn morning as I had done for many previous years searching for elk…. As the Tetons lit up with the glow of dawn on the top of Mt. Moran, 399 strolled out of the willows along the shoreline and crossed the river. For me, the moment was pure serendipity.”
Amboseli Crossing – Amboseli National Park, Kenya, 1994
Amboseli Crossing is Mangelsen’s most engaging and celebrated photograph of a long line of elephants marching across Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. It’s a tribute to a famous pachyderm mother named Joyce, matriarch to a much beloved sub-herd known as the “JA Family.”
Cynthia Moss, founder and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in 1972, calls the image historic. “When you look at this 1994 Mangelsen photograph, Joyce had just taken over the role of matriarch because the JA’s glorious old matriarch Jezebel had died in November 1993.”
Joyce was named after Joyce Poole who began her research career collaborating with Cynthia in 1975. “At the time Joyce was estimated to be 53 years old so she was an experienced female well qualified to be matriarch. She led her family successfully over the next 16 years until a devastating drought, along with a resurgence of poaching, hit Amboseli in 2009. Joyce died in April of that year.”
Polar Dance – Hudson Bay, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, 1989
Enchanting and whimsical, this Mangelsen portrait of two wild polar bears appearing to waltz in the Arctic stays with the viewer and invites ongoing re-inspection.
“In November 1989, Fred Bruemmer, friend, mentor, arctic explorer, and one of Canada’s greatest treasures and I photographed two large polar bears ‘play fighting’ along the West coast of Hudson Bay. It was grey with a bitter north wind and blowing snow. ‘Our kind of day’ said Fred, as we watched and photographed the two giant bears, agile and graceful dancers, appearing and then disappearing in the near white out conditions. Several of our fellow travelers and photographer friends had decided it was too nasty, the light and visibility too poor to venture out, and stayed in camp. Afterwards, when the bears lay down to cool off, Fred looked at me and only smiled, knowing we had seen and photographed something special. Fredd was a gentle, quiet, and humble soul.”
Catch of the Day – Brooks Falls, Alaska, 1988
The alluring picture is counted among the most famous wildlife photographs in the history of the camera and often referenced as a fine example of narrative nature photography.
It is Mangelsen’s most instantly recognizable and prized fine art photograph. With this jaw-dropping “predicament scene,” Mangelsen captures the exact moment a spawning sockeye salmon in Brooks Falls leaps into the waiting jaws of a massive Alaskan brown bear.
“After a week I still wasn’t sure I had gotten the image I wanted of the catch. I had seen it several times, which was special enough, but it all happened so fast and there were so many variables, that I couldn’t be sure if I had reacted quickly enough to capture it on film. I wouldn’t know for certain until I saw the processed film weeks later.”
Light in the Forest – Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India, 1998
Humid jungles around Madhya Pradesh in central India have long attracted a larger-than-life reputation for being home to man-eating Bengal tigers, but is the fear associated with them really deserved?
Bengal tigers today are among the most imperiled large predators on Earth and scientists predict they could vanish from the wild by the middle of this century. With this acclaimed image, Mangelsen portrays a young tigress born into a legendary bloodline of big cats.
“Tigers possess an unmatched mystique because of their beauty, elusiveness, and size. But so often, as with Agrican lions, North American grizzlies and other large predators, tigers have been misunderstood. I wanted Light in the Forest to serve as a visual meditation, a reminder that tigers are incredible sentient beings worthy of our respect, reverence, and protection.
Eyes of the Grizzly – Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 2011
The Pilgrim Creek drainage in northern Jackson Hole, Wyoming, wends from high country in a national forest and tumbles on a course that marries the Snake River. This riparian corridor has, in recent years, become home to a resident population of grizzlies, including a charismatic famous grizzly mother nicknamed “Blondie” because of her especially light-colored fur.
“In her fce, through her eyes, you see an intelligent, sentient being looking back. I’ve seen a similar look in African lions, leopards, and gorillas, tigers in India, polar bears in the Arctic and jaguars in South America. Human mythology has given large carnivores a fearsome reputation, but I want to remind viewers they deserve our awe and respect. We need to ensure they have wild places on our planet.”
Tapis Magique (top banner image) – Tehachapi Mountains, California, 2003
The Tehachapi Mountains of California are known for producing tidal waves of color during the botanical explosion known as “superbloom.” Here—and only in years when the right amount of rainfall aligns with temperature—dozens of different species of wildflowers sweep across the hinterlands in a crazy quilt palette.
“What happens in the hills around Tehachapi is literally the meaning of ‘visual relief.’ You feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, or maybe Alice just after she’s set foot in Wonderland. Poppies erupt and they’re accented by the hues of wild daisies and dozens of other species. When you’re out in the middle of it, there’s actually a whir of butterflies and a purr of buzzing bees.”
About the author
Mark Davis is the outdoors reporter for the Powell Tribune. He has worked previously as a reporter and photojournalist in Chicago and Omaha and enjoys hunting, fishing, birdwatching, and all outdoor sports.