(This “Call of the Wild” cover story was published by the National Museum of Wildlife Art)
Innate gifts, properly nurtured, blossom. A garden of artistic aptitude flourishes when inspiration is supplied. Nature photographer Frans Lanting is a case in point.
Lanting grew up in a small Netherlands village, which, over time, was given over to petrochemical and industrial interests. Lanting came to the United States to study environmental planning, in hopes of reversing such erosive trends. The field frustrated Lanting; bureaucracy walled him off even more from the natural world he loved. He moved to California, where that state’s seductive, wild beauty took hold of his soul. Lanting’s passions and artistic gifts found their inspiration, and the photographer set upon the path that has made him one of the world’s most recognized nature photographers.
Frans Lanting’s photographic artistry is described by Thomas Kennedy, National Geographic’s former Director of Photography, as encapsulating “… the mind of a scientist, the heart of a hunter, and the eyes of a poet.”
And, it’s true. Lanting is a naturalist, an explorer, a bit of a scientist, and of course, a master photographer. This fall, his exhibition, “Jungles,” comes to the National Museum of Wildlife Art. His extraordinary collection of photographs, taken around the globe over a period of 20 years, is an impassioned endeavor to depict the “kaleidoscopic nature” of jungles. To capture for his audience the “…glimpses of faces that melt into shadows, the bursts of color and shimmering light.”
But, let’s add another element, “ a conductor’s orchestration,” to Kennedy’s list. Because Lanting’s work is full of music…
Tammy Christel: “In your book “Jungles,” you describe your first night in the jungle as a sleepless one, because of the “tinkling, honking, and whistling” of hundreds of frogs; you use the words ‘crescendo,’ and ‘rhythms.’ Are you thinking of music as you photograph?”
Frans Lanting: “Yes, I often do. I look at images not just as single entities but also in sequences. “Jungles” is an example of that, where these images are strung together, and it becomes a visual experience for people in an impressionistic sense; the book isn’t so much about the science, but about the feel of it, as a sequence of a body of work.”
TC: “And “Jungles’” four sections-Water & Light, Color & Camouflage, Anarchy & Order, and Form & Evolution- are separate movements within a single composition.”
FL: “Right. It is interesting you ask about it, because we are in the midst of an ambitious new audio visual production that involves the music of Philip Glass, to be combined from images from a new project called “The Evolution of Life.” The world premier, an orchestral performance combined with a sequence of images, will take place here in California at the end of July.”
TC: “What about Kennedy’s description of you as scientist, hunter and poet?”
FL: “I think there are aspects of all three identities in what I do. I have to know the significance of a place or subject, and scientists are my best friends. They go on field trips with me, I talk to them, and I read what they write. But, I need to get out in the field myself, and make things work on the basis of solo encounters.
A hunter’s mindset is important, in terms of being opportunistic, but you must also be very responsive to your subject. You have to get within range, you have to gain trust. All apply, and not only when you are working with animals. You encounter similar circumstances with landscapes, or with people.
Ultimately, an image has to work. Timing, preparation, the logistics of going into a place and finding things potentially worth photographing, it has to come together as a final image. It has to do something to people. Move them.
That is where the lyricism–the poetry–comes in, in an image’s metaphorical and symbolic quality. I like to think of my work not just as capturing things specifically, but allegorically, and conceptually.”
TC: “I am struck by your discovery of graphic detail–the minute textures and patterns of the jungle. Many of your photographs remind me of abstract art, or textiles. This is true whether we are looking at ‘Raindrops on a Leaf ‘in Peru, climbing vines, red and green macaws–all are alive in themselves. Everything is, in a way, interchangeable. In your jungles, the Amazon Basin’s Rio Torre is a slithering, creamy snake, a pale tendril. A rain forest at sunrise could just as well be vaporous, sun-kissed cumuli. Bird of Paradise feathers are cockleshells. A glass-winged butterfly is from Tiffany.”
FL: “Yes, absolutely. What I’ve tried to do with ‘Jungles’ is summarize and interpret the experience of being in a rain forest. The overwhelming sensation when you are there yourself. There is texture and detail everywhere–photographically, however, it is very difficult to capture in its totality. So the images are often impressions of details, and from that we build a larger view of the forest.”
And then, there is the human element. Lanting exposes humanity in the natural world. As a chimpanzee stretches, we see a dancer’s warm-up exercise. A fairy tern is an ascending spirit; a chameleon’s eyes hold Aristotle’s wisdom.
Lanting agrees that he is trying to connect people with nature in a positive way, via composition, and universal artistic principles.
“We can’t deny that connection,” says Lanting. “It is really the reason we like anything that has to do with animals. I try to express a creature’s individuality, so people think that this is not just any ape, any frog–this is an individual creature with its own existence and spirit.”
Going out on a lowland forest limb, I tell Lanting that his camera’s eye brings us so intimately close with Jungles’ creatures, it seems we are nesting with them, verging on entering their very beings.
“I’ll leave that particular interpretation to you!” laughs Lanting. But I appreciate what you are saying. I regard it as a great compliment. I try to be a portrayer of creatures needing an interpreter. So that is good.”