Frans Lanting: A Bridge to the Natural World
PhotoMedia Magazine, Summer 2006
By Roddy Scheer
He has watched insects consume his tent before his eyes. He has lived in environments so oppressively dank and humid that fungus would grow on his lenses. He’s lost count of how many camera bodies have been consumed by the rain forests he’s crossed. To capture elusive wildlife in its native state, he’s done whatever it takes, be it hiding for hours in the mud behind wet foliage, or building a 100-foot steel platform in the forest. And did we mention the larvae that burst forth from underneath his own skin? Reading these accounts in Frans Lanting’s 2000 book “Jungles,” one marvels that the renowned photographer managed to even survive his many journeys, not to mention create some of the most indelible images of nature ever captured on film or flash card.
Whether he’s perched precariously in the treetops or half-submerged in a swamp, many regard Lanting as the world’s foremost nature photographer. He has been named the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and won the Sierra Club’s prestigious Ansel Adams Award for conservation-oriented photography. He is one of the most published shooters in the esteemed pages of National Geographic, where he is considered by editors to be “a singular extraordinary talent.” He has even been knighted by his native Holland for “his contribution to raise awareness for the beauty of nature and the necessity to protect it.”
With all the accolades, however, he might just be proudest of his most recent honor, winning the coveted Lennart Nilsson Award for contributions to science through imagery. After all, Lanting, one of nature photography’s consummate technicians, has spent the greater part of the last two decades tagging along with biologists and other scientists to document various research projects and expeditions studying the plight of the earth’s lost worlds and their inhabitants.
“I’m quite inspired by the work of certain scientists who have put real commitment towards understanding certain animals or certain places,” says Lanting. “I am greatly impressed by the work that people do under really difficult circumstances to be in the trenches when it comes to conservation. It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to make it happen.”
Although he creates emotion-filled and beautiful images of the natural world, he is at heart a scientist, himself — one whose passion is documenting the plight of endangered lands and wildlife from pole to pole and points in between. “Scientists are my best friends,” he says. “I depend on their expertise to know what to look for and to understand what I’m seeing in nature.”
Lanting began working with scientists extensively two decades ago, while shooting his initial assignments for National Geographic. “The images I produce for the Geographic tend to be loaded with a lot of scientific content,” he says. Lanting seeks to illustrate the scientific journeys on which others have embarked, considering his pictures to be “visualizations of what other people have figured out about a particular subject.”
Somewhere along the way, Lanting refined a style focused on capturing the universalities of life on the planet. Whether he is shooting downy baby penguins in Antarctica or domesticated elephants navigating rivers in India, Lanting aims to show that, behind all of the bewildering varieties of flora and fauna, all life is essentially the same.
As he wrote in the introduction to his most recent book, “Eye to Eye” (2003), he prefers to see himself as “a bridge between the animal world and the millions of people who will never crouch before an elephant or hunt with lions in the African night.”
Out of the nest
Growing up in his hometown of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, during the 1950s, Lanting identified with animals at an early age. He was particularly enthralled with a children’s story by the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, about a boy named Nils Holgersson who is shrunken by a magician to half of his original size. Nils eventually is adopted by a flock of wild geese and learns to live in harmony with nature.
Hearing tales of the adult Lanting’s exploits in the wild — such as living among a colony of albatross on a remote speck in the middle of the ocean — it’s hard to avoid a comparison to his fictional boyhood hero, Nils.
His affinity for photography, science and nature, however, was discovered largely on his own. His father, who ran a yachting business, had wanted him to take over the family firm, but Lanting had other ideas. “I fell out of the nest,” he says.
At 21, he took his first trip to the United States, hiking and taking pictures in several national parks. Interested in improving his photography, he began studying other professional shooters and practiced taking pictures back in Rotterdam and the Dutch countryside. During this time, Lanting earned a master’s degree in environmental economics from Rotterdam’s Erasmus University in 1977. The next year, he enrolled in a postgraduate program in environmental planning at the University of California at Santa Cruz. After launching what seemed to be a promising career in environmental economics, Lanting suddenly decided to take a different tack, moving from Holland to coastal California to pursue photography full-time.
His first self-assigned projects were to document the lives and lifestyles of the shorebirds and sea lions that frequented the beaches and coastal waters near his new home in Santa Cruz. Cutting his teeth on these local subjects allowed Lanting to forge a style based on getting eye-to-eye with wildlife to take intimate portraits revealing not only habitual behavior but personality traits as well. Those initial projects were so well executed that respected magazines like Audubon and GEO clamored for his pictures.
Going to extremes
Rob Sheppard, who has edited Lanting’s bimonthly “World View” column in Outdoor Photographer magazine for the last decade, lauds the photographer for taking pictures that go beyond documenting the natural world to demanding that the viewer pay attention: “He doesn’t want just a picture of something, he wants a picture that makes you think about the subject and realize the importance of the scene in front of you.” Sheppard adds that Lanting “tries very hard to go beyond the obvious.”
For Lanting, going beyond the obvious has meant traveling way off the beaten path to open viewers’ eyes to worlds and beings previously unimagined. Indeed, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary Lanting’s work is, given that so many wildlife shooters have followed in his muddy footsteps.
Back in the ’80s, when Lanting first burst onto the scene, the photography world still regarded Ansel Adams and a small group of large-format disciples as the world’s best nature photographers. The wildlife imagery Lanting sent back from Madagascar made jaws drop all over the National Geographic offices in Washington, D.C., and subsequently all over the globe, when that February 1987 issue hit newsstands.
“Madagascar had not been explored in a modern sense,” Lanting reports. “It was very exciting to be in the vanguard, providing the first documentation of species that had never before been photographed.”
Lanting still revels in the opportunity he had to photograph a species of lemur that hadn’t even been named yet: “It doesn’t get any more exciting than that, sitting face to face with an unknown primate, alongside the scientist who discovered it.”
In a foreshadowing of what would become his modus operandi, Lanting parlayed the stunning assignment into a coffee-table book project, “Madagascar: A World Out of Time,” with Aperture, a leading publisher of fine-art photography books. National Geographic then tapped him for a succession of “plum” assignments, at least for someone who thrives on living in the field for months at a time fighting off pests and extreme weather. Lanting’s subsequent work for the Geographic, documenting the search for the last white rhinos in Zaire and exposing the first images of pygmy chimpanzees in the rain forests of the Congo, led to more book projects and established him as the go-to guy for conservation-oriented wildlife photography, especially in far-flung locales.
Along the way, Lanting has pushed himself and his equipment to the limit, and sometimes beyond. When he came down with a debilitating mysterious illness aboard an Antarctic expedition, doctors were surprised to learn that malaria — not exactly the most common polar malady — was the culprit. It turned out that he had contracted the disease, which apparently can have a long incubation period, while working on a National Geographic assignment in the jungles of Madagascar several months earlier. Luckily, the British armed forces were kind enough to provide him with an air rescue to shuttle him to proper medical care, but he still bemoans how the setback infringed on his Antarctic wanderings.
In another example, best-laid plans went awry in quite a different way in a rain forest on the island of Borneo. “To photograph jungle life active after dark, I developed a remote-camera system with multiple strobes, and encased all components in weatherproof boxes,” Lanting says. “An army of ants chewed through the wiring, causing a spectacular battery meltdown.”
Always one for a challenge, Lanting rose above the calamity by jerry-rigging the system back together, proudly relating that he was able to get “a few precious glimpses of animals at night.”
Beyond getting to exotic locations and working them from every angle, Lanting’s technical prowess has enabled him to shed light on some of the darker corners of the natural world. His pioneering use of fill flash in the field redefined the possibilities for nature shooters working from the forest floor.
“There was consistently a challenge from photographing wildlife in that you couldn’t always get ideal light on the subject,” he reports. “I saw what flash could do and began experimenting with the old Vivitar 283 and 285 flash units,” he says. Powwows with fellow Geographic shooters Nick Nichols and Peter Menzel in the late ’80s led to breakthroughs in the way that the photographers could mix subtle amounts of flash with ambient light to impart a more natural look to their images than full flash would have allowed.
Lanting adds that he draws technical and artistic inspiration from the worlds of both fine art and popular culture: “You never know where an idea might come from that just gives you a spark.”
For example, he cites how Life photojournalist Gregory Heisler used strobes in outdoor settings, in pictures of souped-up cars in Los Angeles at dusk, as a “real breakthrough” for him. “I’ve also learned a lot from the ways photographers have used flash in everything from studio to sports settings,” he says. “Then I’ve worked to find a way to use those ideas outdoors.”
He has made extensive use of such techniques deep below the jungle canopies from Madagascar to Peru, helping illuminate the lives and habits of forest creatures, from arachnids to hominids. He also created some of the first remote flash-based camera rigs to capture images of stealthy animals on their nightly game trail wanderings.
While no doubt a technical pioneer, Lanting has been slow to embrace digital photography, having switched over from his tried-and-true Fujifilm emulsions just last year. Nevertheless, he has made the transition without missing a beat, toting Nikon D2X and D200 camera bodies and a wide assortment of lenses, strobes and accessories into the field wherever he goes. “The technology is there now,” Lanting says. In fact, he just returned from a photographic expedition to Antarctica and didn’t expose a single roll of film on the trip, instead relying on digital capture for everything.
Despite his late switchover, Lanting nevertheless considers digital to be revolutionary, “because it has dramatically shortened the number of steps between a photographer’s vision and the ability to gauge whether what he or she captured expresses that vision.” He also likes the fact that he no longer has to deal with film or processing labs, waiting for FedEx to show up or editing slides on clunky light tables. He now can handle most of these tasks himself in the field, via digital camera bodies and a laptop. “It makes a huge difference, especially when you work in remote places for extended times like I do,” he says. “It’s very empowering.”
Lanting still sees a future for film, though, preferring it for specific applications, such as panoramic photography. “There’s still a role for film, and there will be a role for film for a long time to come,” he says. “Color didn’t push black-and-white into extinction; it just redefined the niche for black-and-white. It’ll be the same thing for film, but it’s going to be a while before we recognize what the new niche will be, because everybody’s still trying to get used to digital capabilities.”
Doing his part
Typically in the field for about half the year, Lanting, who turns 55 this summer, uses his time at home to catch up on the business end of things, tending to book projects, gallery exhibits and stock sales. As he matures from leading light to sagacious inspiration, he also finds himself more and more in demand as a teacher. Photographers and fans, alike, book years in advance and trek tens of thousands of miles to attend the sold-out workshops he runs out of his Santa Cruz, Calif., studio every spring. Over the years, he also has lent his expertise to several instructional television programs and how-to videos for aspiring shooters.
Beyond such experiential lessons, his “World View” column in Outdoor Photographer outlines various techniques that he has employed to nail some of his most memorable landscape and wildlife images. Featuring just a single meaningful shot and a few paragraphs of accompanying text, the column provides readers not only technical details about camera angles, apertures and fill flash settings, but also meditations on wildlife observation and natural history. “The soft light of an overcast evening added a cool blue tone to the silky texture of their baby fur, not yet scarred by the events of life that will make them all different,” he writes at the close of one such column, about taking pictures of seal pups scurrying out of the way of a fight between two adult males. Indeed, Lanting’s work shows his keen interest in getting on the same level as the wildlife he is shooting, in hopes of triggering concern and empathy among the human viewers who can affect change. “Work I’ve done in places like Madagascar, Botswana and Peru has often been credited with having contributed to changes in perception, changes in funding opportunities for science and conservation, and changes in how particular areas have been affected,” Lanting says.
Beyond providing pictures, Lanting also has taken an active role in several conservation campaigns, including World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet program, which seeks to put greater protections in place for more than 200 endangered ecosystems around the world. Along with underwater photographer David Doubilet and the late landscapist Galen Rowell, Lanting contributed photos of wildlife in several areas of concern for the organization’s influential 1999 book “Living Planet: Preserving Edens of the Earth.” He also serves on WWF’s national council, advising the group’s leaders on everything from general priorities to specific campaign tactics, and has worked extensively with Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society, among others.
Journey through time
As for the future, Lanting is excited about the upcoming release of his new large-format book project, “Life: A Journey Through Time,” which tells the story of life on earth through 200 photos and supplemental text. Lanting has been shooting pictures for the book for the past seven years in an effort to document modern-day representations of each of the major eras of the evolution of life on earth, from its earliest beginnings to its present diversity. Lanting’s goal is to show that the scenes and wildlife pictured therein are still accessible today, at least for those willing to travel to great lengths to see them in person. By producing the project, Lanting hopes to help millions of people learn “that important elements of the earth’s history are still visible in primeval landscapes, isolated ecosystems and archaic life forms, which can be viewed as Ôtime capsules’ of life.” In addition to the obligatory traveling exhibit, the new book will be complemented by a web site featuring new images and reference information on the scenes captured in the book. The project will be kicked off in high style July 29-30 at a live multimedia performance, during the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz. Images from the book have been set to an hour-long original orchestral composition by Philip Glass, to be conducted by Marin Alsop. Taschen will release the book in September, and the program will tour throughout the United States and Europe. To Lanting, the “Life” project, which he hopes can reach millions of viewers around the world in one form or another, offers a new perspective on the power of photography to make a difference in the world. “I really believe in the power of the medium at a time when everyone is bombarded by too many impressions from too many sources,” he says. Besides the forthcoming release of the “Life” project, Lanting is currently engaged in “making some profiles of landscapes in the United States” and shooting for an upcoming project on one of his favorite wildlife subjects, albatross. Like many of the scientists whose work he documents, Lanting is optimistic that his efforts in highlighting the history of life on earth will help people realize what’s at stake as the world’s remaining lost places become all too found.
IN THE LOUPE: Frans Lanting
Home, Studio & Gallery: Santa Cruz, Calif.
Staff: Depending on which projects are in the works, Lanting employs up to a dozen workers.
Book: “Eye to Eye” (Taschen, 2003); “Jungles” (Taschen, 2000); “Penguin” (Taschen, 1999); “Living Planet: Preserving Edens of the Earth” (Crown, 1999); “Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape” (University of California Press, 1997); “Okavango: Africa’s Last Eden” (Chronicle, 1993); “Madagascar: A World Out of Time” (Aperture, 1990).
Equipment: Lanting has worked with Nikon equipment for his entire career, and some of his images have even graced the Japanese company’s ads. “I just like their cameras and their lenses,” he says, “and I’ve used them for many years, and I think their strobes are superb.” But Lanting warns against getting too wrapped up in equipment choices: “It’s easy to get carried away, especially in this day and age when photography is so technology-driven, with comparing features instead of focusing on what you can actually do with a camera. Look at the great photographers who worked 20 or 30 years ago with equipment that by today’s standards is very, very simple. It’s the power of your vision, not the number of your pixels.”
Accolades: Lennart Nilsson Award (2006); Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award (1997); BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (1991); Top Honors, World Press Photo (1988, 1989). He is also a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in London, a Trustee of the University of California at Santa Cruz, a National Council member of the World Wildlife Fund and a Knight in Holland’s Royal Order of the Golden Ark.
Advice to aspiring photographers: “If you’re starting out as a photographer, you need to become very specific and focused about what you want to do,” says Lanting. “Just to nibble at many different things in general may yield a good image here or there, but it’s going to be very difficult to develop a body of work that way that stands out.” He recommends starting out with a project close to home that won’t cost an arm and a leg in travel expenses: “Get involved with something you believe in that’s close to you physically, and then just work it until you can say, ‘Here’s my statement.'”