The art of TRAVEL
We reveal the year’s best travel photos shot on a Nikon
If you follow the paths of other photographers you end up doing the same thing that they did Frans Lanting, nature photographer
One the world’s most revered nature photographers, Frans Lanting has no formal qualifications or training in his chosen field. Like his equally famous contemporary, Sebastiao Salgado, Frans is an economist, having completed a master’s degree in the subject before moving to the United States to study environmental planning. But soon after crossing the Atlantic in the ’70s, he began to photograph the natural world in earnest, and never looked back… When you were younger and a student studying economics, what part did photography play in your life? I was surrounded by nature of a sort when I was growing up in a small town in The Netherlands. It wasn’t nature on a grandiose scale like you find in the United States or elsewhere, of course, but I’ve always been drawn to the natural world. Picking up a camera was a natural extension of that, but I didn’t do that until my early 20s and then Ihad no clue what I was doing. It took me awhile to figure out that I was actually better off being a bit more methodical about teaching myself. Did you have any mentor in those early days – someone you looked up to or who helped you? There were a couple of photographers in The Netherlands who were active and quite accomplished, so I sought them out and they took me under their wing. Out of that came my first book,
VisionsoftheDutchLandscape, which has become a bit of a collector’s item. But I pretty much did things on my own, because there weren’t a lot of resources back then. It’s unthinkable for beginner photographers today to imagine a situation where you can’t go to the internet to find every answer to every question; where you’re not surrounded by millions of images of every kind that can inspire you or can baffle you. Photography was more of a closed universe back then. When I ask other photographers in the field of natural history and wildlife who inspired them, your name is mentioned a lot. Who were the photographers who inspired you early in your career? In the UK there was Eric Hosking, who was a real pioneer in bird photography. When you look at his work today most of his portraits look very conventional, but he was ingenious. He brought a deep understanding of birds to his craft, and that really appealed to me. Then in the USA there was a whole generation of NationalGeographic photographers who were doing things that I thought were unbelievable. A photographer called Ernst Haas, who wasn’t a natural history photographer, published a book called TheCreation that became a big influence on how I looked at the world and how I tried to capture it with my camera. Speaking of NationalGeographic, how did your relationship with the Society begin? Like every photographer, I had dreams of contributing images to the Society, and for me it came about step by step. I started doing work for magazines around the world first. I moved to the United States in the late ’70s, then started contributing to natural history publications in Europe, and to British and American publications, then I started doing assignments for bigger magazines such as Life and Geo.
In those days the magazine world was much richer and there were more possibilities to interact with editors and art directors than there are today. It was a matter of getting published first, then once I started doing things that were a little different from what is conventional, editors and art directors started paying attention to my name and to what I was doing. You are also well known for your books, especially Jungles and Okavango. I like to come up with image ideas that can help to tell a story. For magazines this story needs to be specific, and it requires an editorial point of view. But sometimes these ideas can grow into something bigger or more conceptual. That typically leads to something like a book or an exhibition, or an event. Depending on the scope of the work, it can take a couple of months or a couple of years to pull together.
Jungles was a good example of that. It looked at the tropical forests around the world that had been covered many times by other photographers, writers and philosophers. Others had tended to shoot or discuss them quite literally, so we decided instead to look at these forests conceptually – to portray the things that happen in all jungles, the things they have in common, rather than a load of images ordered by location. Whether images are from the Congo or Indonesia, they help to
In those days the magazine world was much richer and there were more possibilities
create a mosaic of themes and ideas. We developed chapter titles including Anarchy and Order, Form and Evolution, Colour and Camouflage, then started looking for and creating images to fit these themes. But your multimedia show Life was a far more ambitious undertaking, combining images choreographed to music. How did that production come to mind and what was involved in delivering it? In the case of Life, my ambitions grew into an attempt to look for the roots of diversity on our planet. Of course, I’m not the first person to dream about what the Earth looked like when it was much, much younger.
One of my enduring sources of inspiration is David Attenborough. One of David’s seminal TV series,
LifeonEarth, was quite similar to Life. He took a parallel approach to go to see what he could find, which got him a little closer to witnessing all of these phenomenal things that helped to shape the Earth as it is today.
But my wife Chris – who’s also my creative partner – and I took this idea in a different direction for Life. We wanted to make it a lyrical portrayal. Of course, the evolution of a living planet is a science story, but as soon as you start reciting scientific theories a lot of people’s eyes tend to glaze over. So we wanted to make the work more experiential, to lure people into a journey of discovery that was based on a set of images that would act as stepping stones from the present day to the beginning of time.
We had to be careful about where these stepping stones were, because each of them needed to lead logically on to the next one. It required as many decisions about what not to feature as choices about what to show. In that sense you can compare creating it to the work of a sculptor – you have to constantly say ‘no, no, no’ until you end up with things that are really worth showing and sharing.
The Life project also involved digital technology to put together the whole multimedia symphony, incorporating digital editing and digital projecting technology. Just 10 years ago when we premiered that performance, the technology was barely there – it was a leap into the unknown. When I think back to what we tried to do back then, sweat still breaks out!
The evolution of a living planet is a science story, but as soon as you start reciting scientific theories, people’s eyes glaze over
Was Life the most fearsome assignment that you’ve ever undertaken, then?
Well it was fearsome in the sense that if you commit yourself to put a show on, live, in front of 2,000 people in a concert hall then there are a lot of things that can go wrong.
But it was also a really interesting experience to become a collaborator in a huge creative team that included a composer, a symphonic conductor, an orchestra of 60 people, a visual choreographer and a projection coordinator. In a team like that you have to understand a lot more about how you’d like other people to view your project. Your mission can’t just be, ‘I want to make my photographs look good’, because that’s just a small part of the equation.
You have experienced a lot of changes since switching from film to digital. In making that transition, did you take to digital technology immediately?
The change over from analogue to digital photography was something that happened over a period of years. I was doing digital prints first because it became apparent to me early on that digital printing technology was superior to the old E6 method where you had virtually no control over the contrast and colour fidelity, and that led me on a path to discover and apply scanning technology. I was guided by someone who has become a real guru in that technology, an early Apple engineer called Bill Atkinson. Then eventually I switched over from analogue to digital capture as well.
Let’s look at cameras: what was your first digital SLR?
I’ve used Nikon D-SLRs for years, but I also use Nikon 1 cameras because I think mirrorless technology is one of the more interesting branches of the digital photography tree. I also use my smartphone a lot. In fact, I’m working on a project at the moment that combines images that I’ve taken on my smartphone with music, for another performance piece that is steadily growing.
But I’m also going right back to the beginnings of photography. I was in Antarctica recently for a voyage that aimed to get closer to the work of Frank Hurley, who was Shackleton’s expedition photographer. It’s exactly 100 years now since the crew made it back to safety after the Endurance went down.
I’ve been familiar with Hurley’s work for many years and I’ve crossed paths with the places where he worked a number of times. In Antarctica I used
the same type of camera that he used after the ship went down – it’s an early model Kodak folding camera with roll film.
What was that like to work with?
It felt humbling. I use lots of different cameras for different purposes, such as camera traps in situations far afield, but also close to home. I think that’s one of the amazing and bewildering things about photography today – there are so many different tools available now, and it’s not a linear process any more.
Many of your images now have an iconic status. When you took them, did you feel you’d got something more special?
I think images such as Elephants at Twilight (above) and Scarlet Macaw
I think my images such as Elephants at Twilight (above) have grown both in my mind and in the minds of other people over time
in Flight (page 92) have grown both in my mind and in the minds of other people over time. When you take an image you’re so preoccupied with the technical challenges that it is hard to take a step back and to appreciate it in context, but I feel gratified that images like these have made some contribution to the perception of the animals, as well as to the lexicon of images that apply to elephants and macaws. It’s not easy to come up with a different point of view.
No, in fact it gets harder in this digital age with so many more images being taken. How do you approach it?
When you’ve been doing something for a while it’s important that you continue to challenge yourself, instead of relying on your routine and instincts. The Antarctica project with Hurley’s camera is one way I’m stretching myself, and adapting to the realities of Instagram is another example of this.
Being on Instagram is a whole new way of communicating that is much more spontaneous than putting together a book or a symphony that can take years. So I can respond to current events, like when the Chinese government announced a ban on the sale of elephant ivory. I could respond and share that information with hundreds of thousands of people around the world instantly.
On the topic of conservation, a lot of people are fearful of what Donald Trump’s new presidency may bring. As someone active in conservation, are you worried?
I don’t want to get dragged into the mundane details of the new political realities, but I do believe that no matter who is in the White House in Washington DC, there are many paths to progress if you believe in a more sustainable relationship between people and the planet.
So it’s still possible for anyone to make a difference, starting locally or starting personally. We can all make decisions that, even though they may not have a big effect on the planet at large, are at least steps in the right direction. I think that the closer to yourself you begin to make change, the more effective you are.
Plus, by banding together with like-minded people you also can scale up your engagement. So I don’t think that whatever happens in the US will stop every possible path towards protecting our planet.
On another note, what has been your proudest or most memorable moment as a photographer?
Oh boy! I don’t look at my work as a top 10, so I’ll have a hard time answering.
Okay then, what has been the most embarrassing moment?
Oh, there have been quite a few of those as well! It’s hard to think of one particular case, but in general terms it was so difficult in the film era to do things right – especially when you were working on location, with no way to see whether you were actually ‘in the zone’ or not. Since I-experimented a lot instead of producing conventional images, my hit rate went way down.
One of the tools I used to help me overcome this was a Polaroid camera back that I could attach to a 35mm SLR camera. It was a very ingenious design by a legendary camera engineer and repairman named Marty Forscher for New York commercial photographers to use [to preview their shots] while they were on location and surrounded by art directors and stylists. Jay Maisel, Pete Turner and Iused them early on, too.
This camera back used Polaroid film, so I could pull out 35mm-sized prints of whatever I wanted. That was a godsend, because I could instantly see better unusual exposure techniques, or whether or not mixed lighting would actually produce any good results.
It also means that some of my best work is only available as a very small Polaroid print in an edition of one!
If you could do it all again, is there anything you would do differently? What would you tell those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
I would like to revisit all of the places I have photographed over the years to shoot them better, with cameras that can do so much more.
To other photographers, I would say take risks creatively. If you follow the paths that have been trodden by many other photographers before, you just end up doing the same thing that they did, and that is no way to distinguish yourself or to cultivate your own personal style.
When you’ve been doing it for a while it’s important that you continue to challenge yourself
Frans Lanting is speaking at The Photography Show on 19 and 20 March 2017. For more details visit www.photographyshow.com
As iatic cheetah caught by camera trap No exposure info available
Eleph ants at twilight No exposure info available
Antarctica No exposure info available
collecting katydids at night No exposure info available Orangutan juvenile No exposure info available