Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen shows how nature art can inspire viewers to save the wild world.
A version of this story first appeared in the winter 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw Magazine.
By Todd Wilkinson
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas, pioneer of color photography
Suppose you are a globally renowned wildlife photographer, a shooter who’s been at it for more than 40 years. Right before your eyes you see animal subjects – individual, spectacular creatures you’ve come to know better than any others – and now, it seems, they are about to be killed.
What would you do? Exercise journalistic objectivity and passively witness their potential demise? Chronicle the tragedy with your camera?
Or, would you intervene by crossing the thin line separating artist from activist?
For Thomas D. Mangelsen, there was never a choice. Looking back, the “combat nature photographer” who makes his basecamp near Moose, Wyoming, still can’t decide whether the feeling welling up inside him was one of desperation, powerlessness or pure dread.
As he stood high on the edge of Teton Point Overlook in the valley of Jackson Hole watching the ingredients of mayhem materialize, he saw people and grizzly bears converge.
The jagged crown of the Teton Range rose to the west, burning with an accent of dawn light. The tranquility of sun-up, however, was quickly broken by the reverb of gunshots popping all around.
“It was kind of surreal,” Mangelsen will tell you. “I knew it had the potential to end up badly and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
What a dozen and a half hunters below Mangelsen could not see in the wavy, choppy topography obscuring their sightlines was a mother grizzly with three near-grown cubs weighing 200 pounds apiece. The hunters were firing at elk in what the National Park Service terms the “Elk Reduction Program” in Grand Teton National Park.
The bears were feeding on the full carcass of a spike bull elk felled and abandoned by an unscrupulous hunter. Mangelsen had been observing the bruins with a long, booming camera lens. It could have gone badly, but mother and cubs took off on the only line to the Snake River that avoided hunters. And miraculously, the hunters never saw them.
The ursid matriarch is among 60 grizzlies known to inhabit Jackson Hole today, though she isn’t just any griz. A 400-pound celebrity bruin given the name “399” by researchers with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, she and her brood had become favorite subjects of Mangelsen and a cadre of wildlife watchers. Images of 399 are among the most popular in Mangelsen’s portfolio, which has attracted collectors around the globe.
Just as 399 does not fit the profile of an average bruin in Greater Yellowstone, Mangelsen is no run-of-the-mill nature photographer. He is counted among the best on Earth. Millions have seen his groundbreaking “Catch of the Day” portraying a spawning Alaskan salmon sailing through the air into the awaiting jaws of a massive brown bear. He was named BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year for a sweeping panoramic, “Born of the North Wind,” featuring a polar bear and Arctic fox set in the Far North. Another image, “Polar Dance” – capturing two polar bears and summoning attention to the issues of climate change – was voted among the top 40 wildlife photographs of all time by the International League of Conservation Photographers.
Mangelsen also has galleries in a half dozen states and his works are considered touchstones for those interested in collectible nature photography, a market that started long ago with Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and others.
In person, Mangelsen is somewhat of a silvertip himself – a naturally shy and soft-spoken product of the American heartland. He grew up working in a family-run five and dime store in Nebraska. Only after his mentor, Dr. Paul Johnsgard, one of the country’s foremost waterfowl biologists, handed him a camera to conduct research, did he discover he had a gift. Until then, his greatest accomplishment had been twice earning the title “world champion goose caller.”
Few wildlife photographers in the world have cultivated a more intrepid mystique than Michael “Nick” Nichols who often ventures to the front lines of environmental crises. Nichols is the lead coordinating photographer for a special issue of National Geographic devoted entirely to the Greater Yellowstone region as the National Park Service marks its centennial in 2016. (That special May 2016 issue also will be written entirely by famed science journalist David Quammen of Bozeman).
A guy who doesn’t bestow praise easily, Nichols told me he holds Mangelsen in highest regard. “As shooters, our pictures are a reflection of who we are. I am the ultimate assignment reporter, an adrenalin junkie, who came up through the system of photojournalism. Assignments pay my way. For Tom it’s different. There are no guarantees that him sitting for long stretches will give him a monetary reward,” Nichols explains.
Mangelsen patiently waits for the moment when all of the variables – the animal itself, backdrop of habitat, good light, and sometimes atmosphere – align. It can take days, months, years to materialize, returning to the same place and preparing for magic to happen.
Mangelsen’s work has been featured in several best-selling books but this autumn he produced a volume that he says, “is the most personally meaningful of my career.” Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone tracks the dramatic ongoing tale of Jackson Hole grizzly 399 and her family.
Full disclosure: I wrote the narrative. Mangelsen and I intended for the book to serve as a window into contemplating the federal government’s plans to soon remove the Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly population from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. After management of grizzlies is handed over to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, those states intend to bring back a trophy sport hunt.
The thought of it riles Mangelsen, who believes it’s anachronistic that conserving large carnivores means humanity has to kill them. “Grizzlies are worth far more alive today than they are dead, not only from an economic standpoint [but] they reflect our worth as a society,” he says.
Mangelsen has followed 399 and her offspring for a decade and amassed a quarter of a million frames, which he edited down to his 150 favorites for Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek.
In contrast to some of his contemporaries, Mangelsen has no interest, he says, in being known as just an “art photographer” whose interactions with wildlife are superficial. Rather, he wants to be remembered as a lensman who bore witness, who used the camera as a tool for seeing without resorting to radical digital manipulation. Most of all, he hopes that when he is gone and his work serves as his testament, viewers realize he took a stand for the survival of species.
Critics and connoisseurs like Kathy Moran, the photo editor at National Geographic, reference another rare distinction that Mangelsen and a select few hold in today’s world. With four million images in Mangelsen’s corpus, ranging from penguins in Antarctica, tigers in India, elephants and rhinos in Africa to jaguars in Brazil, breaching whales from the Pacific and Atlantic, to all manner of North American creatures, every single one is a photograph of animals under wild conditions.
In September 2015, Reader’s Digest magazine interviewed prominent photo editors to talk about their favorite shooters and their images. Mary Anne Golon of The Washington Post singled out Mangelsen. “My photography collection consists primarily of black-and-white prints of dark subjects like war, famine, poverty, and neglect,” Golon said. “For some visual relief, I approached Tom Mangelsen years ago to buy one of his images. When I chose this photo of a silverback gorilla running through the green mountains of Rwanda, he laughed and said, ‘Of all the photographs in my gallery, you have selected the only war picture!’ I still find this image soothing.”
Why is having an “all-wild” portfolio notable? Although many readers here might assume that all the wildlife pictures they see in magazines, art galleries or online were shot in the wild, the truth is that a huge percentage are not.
Many photographers harvest photos of wild animals at game farms. None of Mangelsen’s result from visiting game farms and enlisting captive animals as model for hire. Mangelsen has attracted the scorn of some photographers who did not want the secret let out of the bag, but he has never worried about being outspoken.
“I’m not going to judge them personally because each of us has to make our own choices according to conscience and our convictions. But for me wildlife photography is about celebrating animals that are expressions of wild lives,” Mangelsen says. “And as far as commercial game farms go, their emphasis isn’t on doing what’s right by the animal but exploiting the animal. If you want to do what’s right for an animal, you protect its habitat, you make space for it to live in our crowded world, and you speak out against abuses.”
A dozen years ago, he was on the ground floor in establishing the International League of Conservation Photographers, whose tenets require photographers to disclose if images were shot in wild or captive settings.
The noted ethologist Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder, says Mangelsen’s photographs tap into something invisible that communicates the sentient spirit of his subjects. “Tom sees wildlife as fellow beings, as extensions of the places they live, and that out there on Earth is a sense of relatedness among life forms,” Bekoff says. “It’s what makes our planet special.”
Every spring, Mangelsen heads home to Nebraska to get grounded. For the last 14 years, he and his close friend, the legendary conservationist and chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, have gone to the Mangelsen family shack along the Platte River to watch hundreds of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes. A few years ago they were joined by musician Dave Matthews.
Goodall says it was Mangelsen who first made her aware of the challenges facing grizzlies in the Northern Rockies. For Goodall, his photographs are a reminder of how nature can be a balm to chaos, and the next best thing to being in nature is having it ever-present on the wall.
“Tom is among a rare breed of wildlife photographers who doesn’t only aspire to pull us in visually. He wants us to empathize with his subjects, which is just another way of saying he wants us to relate to them,” Goodall says.
Today, a debate rages over whether humans should bestow wild animals with human names or if numeric references, used as markers for identification are enough. Mangelsen sees nothing wrong with a little anthropomorphizing. He notes that when Goodall started her pioneering work with chimpanzees, she was roundly criticized with bestowing names, but the world would never have connected so deeply with her subjects – or cared – had they been given cold numbers, the effect of which only distances at a time when humanity should be re-embracing its bond with nature.
“I wish that your bear – 399 – had a name,” Goodall told Mangelsen in autumn 2015. “Names are how we acknowledge recognition of individuals and recognition is the first step to knowing … By spending time with animals, we bring them into our hearts and indeed, in that place, we rally our power to protect them.”
Mangelsen echoes a theme that runs through both Goodall’s and Bekoff’s numerous best-selling books that call attention to intellects and emotions of animals. He has watched both 399 and her grown daughter, 610, run frantically in search of their cubs, bawling and seeming to call for assistance when mothers and offspring became separated.
Mangelsen’s advocacy for 399 and family has been uncompromising and he has called for an end to making them the targets of “too much invasive research.” In particular, he says it’s time to leave bears alone, to refrain from trapping, anesthetizing, radio collaring and ear-tagging large numbers of bears. He points out that 399 as well as 610 and other kin have been captured more than a dozen times.
“Much can be learned about bears and bear behavior by simply spending long hours observing them in the field with a pair of binocular, a camera lens, a journal and a tape recorder just as Jane Goodall and her research teams still do today with chimpanzees.”
The West, Mangelsen says, has evolved past the adage that “the only good bear is a dead bear.” Wolf and grizzly watching are anchors in a $1 billion annual nature-tourism industry, he notes. “I’ve heard that we need to ‘manage’ grizzlies by hunting and killing them. But do we really need to send a message to bears, telling them that every time they see us they should turn tail and run for their lives?”
Of the 15 bears descended from 399, half have perished, many in various kinds of lethal run-ins with people which only shows, Mangelsen says, that even for an incredibly smart and fertile mother like 399, surviving in Greater Yellowstone isn’t easy. He has spent thousands of hours photographing grizzlies and has seen numerous bears bluff charge clueless tourists. “You need to give them room. There are times when circumstances don’t feel right so I just pack up the camera and go home,” he says. “Grizzlies are nothing to mess around with. They can kill you.”
The photographer wants his new book to inform readers about the plight of 399 and her species. “I’m hoping Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek will not only give people insights into grizzlies but make them more aware and sympathetic of the challenges this population faces going forward,” Mangelsen says. “It’s amazing we still have them in Greater Yellowstone. It’s part of what makes it a privilege to live here. It’s also a testament that in the wild backyard of America we’ve learned to co-exist with grizzlies, and maybe it will show other countries they can live with tigers and lions now pushed to the brink.”
Bill Allen, the now-retired editor of National Geographic, explains why Mangelsen sits inside the pantheon of the great talents.
“So many things compete for our attention that often we are forced to focus on the here-and-now rather than considering the long term,” Allen explains. “We see headlines on environmental issues when a catastrophic oil spill or other disaster hits; yet the bigger challenges often get lost in the cacophony of our everyday lives.”
That day not so long ago when Mangelsen watched people and grizzlies converge at Teton Point Overlook, he was standing not far from the spot where Ansel Adams famously composed the black-and-white landscape portrait, “The Tetons and the Snake River.”
Mangelsen, Allen says, has taken collectible nature art to a new level where it can serve as a daily meditation on what’s important in the modern world.
“A still photograph made into art by someone like Tom Mangelsen lets us study that moment, find a myriad of connections within it, and process it in our own minds perhaps to find larger truths.”
Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman and has been writing about the environment for 30 years. He is the author of several critically acclaimed books including Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet. Autographed copies of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, by Mangelsen and Wilkinson, are available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.