Tom Mangelsen Travels Far and Wide to Where the Wild Things are for his Iconic Photography, but Always Comes Back Home
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the February 2015 New Horizons
Growing up on the Platte
Thomas Mangelsen had no inkling youthful forays along the Platte River’s sandbars and shores would be the foundation for a world-class nature photography and conservation career.
He didn’t even take pictures growing up in the 1950s into the 1960s. That calling didn’t come until later. Without knowing it though his Huck Finn-like boyhood spent closely observing the natural world around him was perfect preparation for what became his life’s work.
His retailer father Harold Mangelsen, founder of the family crafts store now run by Tom’s brother David, was an avid hunter who championed Platte River Basin conservation before environmental stands were popular. The Mangelsens made good use of a family cabin on the river. There, Tom gained a deep appreciation for the wild, an ardor imbued in the painterly images he makes of species and ecosystems. All are available as framed prints at his nationwide Images of Nature galleries. Then there are his photo books, including his latest, The Last Great Wild Places. His work sometimes accompanies articles in leading magazines, too. Best known for his stills, he’s also shot nature films.
From his Jackson Hole, Wyo. residence he travels widely, shooting on all seven continents. He returns to Neb. to visit family and friends. Every March he’s back for the great crane migration, often in the company of star anthropologist Jane Goodall, a board member of the nonprofit Cougar Fund he co-founded to protect wild cougars.
He’s won national and international recognition for his work and brought wide attention to the annual crane migration, the importance of the Platte and endangered animal populations.
None of it may have happened were it not for that outdoorsy, rite-of-passage coming-of-age that gave him a reverence for nature. That, in concert with an abiding curiosity, a restless spirit and a good eye, are the requisite qualities for being a top wildlife photographer.
His earliest memories are of the meandering Platte’s well-worn life rhythms. Mangelsen largely grew up in Grand Island, where he was born. The family moved to Ogallala, where his father opened his first store, before moving back to Grand Island and finally to Omaha when Tom was 15. Wherever he lived, he spent most of every summer on the Platte. When not hunting waterfowl, there were decoys to be set and tangles of driftwood to be dislodged. Mostly, though, it was sitting still in anticipation of a good shot.
“That’s all we did all summer,” says Mangelsen, who got a .410 shotgun at age 6 or 7.
On hunts his father bemoaned the low river levels resulting from diversions to irrigate farms and to feed city water supplies.
“He felt there should be some water left over for the wildlife.”
At times water management policies left the Platte dry.
Mangelsen says, “It went in 50 years from a lot of water to like 15 percent of what it used to be. It’s probably still only 20 percent now from its historical flows. My dad was very much into that. He testified, he wrote letters. So in that sense he was the first conservationist I knew. He taught me all the ethics of hunting – don’t shoot stuff you can’t kill or don’t have a good chance of killing. He taught me how to call, too.” Coached by his father Mangelsen twice won the world’s goose calling championship.
Under their father’s tutelage Tom and his brothers learned to make their own decoys. painting them every year.
Tom wanted to know about sustainability before it had a name.
“When I wasn’t asking questions I saw what worked and what didn’t,” he says of dam releases and other efforts to regulate river flow and to balance the ecosystem.
Watching and waiting became engrained virtues.
“Basically we’d sit there for a week without seeing a flock of geese maybe, That’s just what you did. The challenge was waiting and then when you had the opportunity maximize that by calls, by setting decoys. We changed decoy sets five or six times a day depending on the wind and my dad’s moods or boredom. We’d see pheasants, hawks, eagles and lots of other birds. I’d watch through my binoculars because I was curious. So I fell in love with birds and not just a few.”
From gun to camera
He eventually discovered what makes a good hunter makes a good photographer.
“In reality I traded in my guns for a camera. It’s all the same process, except I don’t have to pick ’em and I don’t have to clean ’em and I can shoot ’em again. It’s like catch-and-release.”
Both disciplines depend upon patience.
“Well, that’s my biggest asset. I didn’t know any better because that’s how we grew up. I don’t mind sitting in a blind for days. I’m entertained just by watching things. People ask, ‘What do you do – read?’ Well, you can’t read if you’re in a blind. If you are, you’re not watching. If you’re not watching you don’t see something, and if you don’t see something you’re not going to photograph it. So you sit there and you wait and you look. So, yeah, I’m very patient and that’s the biggest gift to have.
“But I’m also a very keen observer. From a photographic standpoint you have to anticipate where an animal might be, what it might do. Is it going to go here or there? Is it going to go by its mate? Is it going to sit on the eggs and if so how long will it be there? If it comes flying in will the best cottonwood be in the background.”
He might never have picked up a camera. Like his brothers he worked in the family’s Omaha store. To please his dad he majored in business administration at then-Omaha University. Preferring a smaller school, he transferred to Doane College in Crete after two years.
“It was probably the best thing I did,” he says.
He changed majors from business to biology, with designs on a pre-med regimen, until finally settling on wildlife biology.
Finding his mentor
After graduating from Doane an important figure came into his life to encourage his new path.
“To continue my graduate studies in wildlife and zoology I went down to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to see Paul Johnsgard. Even at that time at age 39 he was considered the world’s authority on waterfowl. I was intrigued by his background, He’s a duck carver and a sketcher and a photographer and a writer and a teacher.”
But Mangelsen first had to convince Johnsgard to take him on, which required a leap of faith since this would-be protege was no academic star. With the military draft hanging over his head, Mangelsen needed Johnsgard to overlook his deficiencies before Uncle Sam called.
“It was 1969 and the height of the Vietnam War. I asked Paul if he would be interested in being my advisor in graduate school. I showed him my transcripts and he said, ‘These are really not up to snuff.’ He always took straight A students and only took five students a year. I said. ‘Well, I won the world’s goose calling championship twice and I have a cabin on the Platte, and could you maybe make an exception.'”
Johnsgard did, vouching for him to the dean of students. “I think he was mostly trying to stay out of the service,” Johnsgard quips about Mangelsen. The student didn’t let the teacher down. “Paul told me, ‘You may have been one of my worst students but you probably did the best of all.’ So in the end it worked out.”
Johnsgard soon recognized familiar qualities in his student.
“What i saw in him was mostly myself. He was a hunter and although by then I had long since given up hunting I went through a short period of loving duck hunting and that got me to love ducks. And I think Tom already had begun to stray well away from hunting as a passion to be much more interested in photography.
“I set him to work on a little duck counting project but it mostly became lessons in photography, and having a grand time.”
At Johnsgard’s direction Mangelsen bought his first camera, a Pentax, and first lens, a 400-millimeter.
Tom says, “Paul and I would meet on weekends and we’d photograph ducks, geese and cranes, mostly birds in flight, and I got hooked on it.”
The bond between master and pupil was forged during those times.
Johnsgard says the Mangelsen family’s hunting blinds “proved to be perfect photographic blinds,” adding, “I long wanted to spend time on the Platte photographing and this was a perfect chance, so we both got something out of the deal and we became very close friends.”
It was all manual focus, settings and exposures then. Johnsgard helped teach Mangelsen the ropes.
“He told me, ‘You focus in the eye and you shoot at five-hundredths of a second – that will stop the wings,” Mangelsen recalls.
That and a Nikon workshop were Tom’s only formal training. What Johnsgard provided was more valuable than any camera lessons.
“Paul turned me onto watching birds and he gave me a respect for the waterfowl. The more I learned the more I got interested in being a photographer,” Mangelsen says. “I didn’t have any plans other than doing it for a hobby. Then I started a darkroom in the basement of my family’s home in Westgate. I processed my film and I made prints. All black and white. Then I switched to color because it’s more conducive to shooting wood ducks and mallards.”
Tom and his brother David framed those early prints themselves. They banged away late at night in the garage of the family home until their father banished them to a spare warehouse.
Johnsgard says Mangelsen’s talent was apparent from the start. “Tom was very good. He had very good eye sight and hand-eye coordination in terms of focusing on birds moving very rapidly. When we compared pictures his were usually better than mine. He had great ability and it might have been a carryover from his hunting skills.”
Several kindred spirits shaped Mangelsen, who says, “there were all these interesting people I kept meeting along the way,” but he regards Johnsgard as a second father. These men bound by shared interests still get together on the Platte most every year.
“There’s always been a kind of parental sense dealing with Tom, especially in those early years when he was still lost in the woods, if you will,” says Johnsgard, who knows Mangelsen’s career has been no overnight success story but rather a slow steady climb. Once opportunity knocked, Mangelsen was prepared.
Making photography his life
By the time Tom heeded a long-held desire to live in the high country of Colo. he’d “found a different calling” than the family business though he concedes those retail roots taught him how to sell his work.
The mountains had beckoned from the time his family took trips to Estes Park. Then as a young man amid the counterculture movement, with peers joining communes, he moved to Nederland, Colo. outside of Boulder to live in an old one-room schoolhouse. He mastered photography and continued his education there.
“I was still taking some courses, like arctic alpine ecology, from the University of Colorado. At one of the classes this educational filmmaker, Bert Kempers, was doing a dog-and-pony slide show and the teacher knew I was interested in photography and introduced me to him after the class. Bert invited me to come have a beer and a burger with him and asked me if I was interested in work. I said sure.
“I told him I’d never used a movie camera and he said, ‘If you can shoot stills, you can shoot movies,’ which isn’t necessarily true because they’re quite different mindsets. But I didn’t know any better, so he taught me how to use a movie camera. We had an old Bell & Howell with the three-turret lens. Then we moved up to a Bolex and then to an Arriflex. We were doing educational biology films for the University of Colorado. Our advisor there, Roy Gromme, had a famous father, the nature painter and conservationist Owen Gromme.”
Mangelsen later met and was befriended by the elder Gromme.
“Owen was one of the first men making limited edition prints of his paintings, so I thought, Well, why couldn’t I make limited edition prints of photographs? I was stupid and naive at the time and thank God I was because that’s how I started selling the prints.”
Mangelsen opened his first gallery in Jackson Hole in 1978.
Not only did Gromme show him a way to market his work, but he modeled a fierce commitment to bio-diversity reinforced by others he met, including Mardy Murie Didl, widely considered the grandmother of conservation, and Jane Goodall. He also found inspiration in the work of such great photographers as Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, Edward Weston, Minor White, Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange. He and fellow Nebraska-native nature photographer Michael Forsberg are good friends. Nature painters like Robert Bateman are influences, too.
“Catch of the Day,” ©Tom Mangelsen
Projects with personal meaning
Learning filmmaking from Kempers paid huge dividends.
“I did most of the camerawork and Burt wrote, edited and put the films together. That was a great experience. For five years I made films. Out of that grew other films down the road.”
Among these later films was Cranes of the Grey Wind about the birds’ reliance on the Platte habitat.
“My whole deal with that was to do something about the Platte River, which was running dry. I wanted to show people, mostly in Neb., that we have a resource here that’s vital to the whooping crane migration – a natural phenomenon so incredible that it matches any in the world.”
This was Mangelsen’s chance to combine his talent for photography with his passion for the river and his interest in seeing its ecosystem valued and protected. The fact he could shed light on something so dear was irresistible. He didn’t want to see past mistakes repeated.
“The Platte literally went dry when I was a kid because they sucked so much water out of it for irrigation and for cities like Denver. They were putting more and more dams up. My brother Billy and I would go down to the river to see how deep the water was and sometimes couldn’t even find it. Then when the water came in the fall when the irrigation season was over it would trickle down from (Lake) McConaughy and Johnson Reservoir and people would call us and say, ‘The water’s coming, the water’s coming,’ and we’d wait for it. That’s the truth.
“It was a shrinking river with shrinking channels. It was becoming a woodland not that useful for ducks, geese and cranes. That’s changed quite a bit now. There’s been lawsuits over the dams and things. They have to keep a certain amount of water in the river now. Thank God for the whooping cranes or it probably never would have happened.”
He made Cranes of the Grey Wind for the Whooping Crane Trust. His mentor Johnsgard wrote the script and a companion book.
Johnsgard also turned Mangelsen onto Jackson Hole.
“We had spent time in greater Yellowstone,” Mangelsen says. “He introduced me to that area. I fell in love with Jackson Hole because of that trip I made with him when I was his assistant in the field.”
Johnsgard was doing field work in the Tetons when Mangelsen wheeled-in via a jeep. After a week there Mangelsen was sold.
The two men long talked about doing a book together but it wasn’t until last year they finally released one, Yellowstone Wildlife. They’re working on a new book about the cranes of the world.
Mangelsen’s interest in cranes led him on a kind of pilgrimage that helped generate more projects.
“I wanted to see where the cranes lived in the summer, I wanted to see where they nested in Alaska, where they wintered in Texas off the coasts and all the migration stops along the way.”
National Geographic got wind of this intrepid photographer following the cranes’ migration patterns and they commissioned him for a project that led to a PBS Nature film and so on. His reputation made, his books became best sellers and more people started collecting his prints. He opened more galleries to keep up with demand.
Staying true to his convictions
Even though he’s gained fame few photographers ever attain, the values, principles and rituals of his work remain immutable.
“You photograph birds in the spring when they’re breeding because that’s when they’re most colorful. You photograph mammals in the fall when they have their antlers and their best color.”
He works in all kinds of weather and even prefers when it’s not a picture postcard day. “Blue skies and sunshine are boring to me,” he says. Old Kodak film stock required “you put the sun at your back because the film was so slow it was sensitive to light.” But, he adds, “it’s all changed with higher speed films and now of course with digital.”
Catching the best light is a sport unto itself.
“They call it the golden hour, around sunrise and sunset. But you can also have wonderful light around storms and rain and fog, so there’s not one light I look for. But obviously the golden light, the early light or late light is classically the best light.”
He once made an image of a mountain lion during the last light of the day, the creature silhouetted against a black cave containing her den.
“That very direct light is really beautiful,” he says.
An elephant “against a black, windy, dusty African sky can be beautiful, too,” he says, as it was when he photographed one amid a rolling storm that shone “this golden light sideways across the plain.”
Another time he captured a group of giraffes in the noon day light but with a storm riding in to create a black sky.
“So there’s millions of different kinds of light,” he says.
From the start, Mangelsen’s viewed his work with an eye to education.
“I looked at all this as not collecting trophies as most photographers do early on, you know, shooting the biggest bucks or the biggest bull elk or the biggest rams or whatever. Instead, I was trying to collect animals in their environment – showing how they live.”
His by now iconic image of a brown bear catching a sockeye salmon in its mouth – entitled ‘Catch of the Day’ – has been so often reproduced he’s lost count. But that picture taken in 1988 at the head of Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska and which adorned the cover of his first book, Images of Nature, would not have been possible if he didn’t intentionally look and wait for it.
“It was a moment that hadn’t been recorded before,” he says. “There’s thousands of pictures of bears at the falls. I’d seen them, I’d gone there. I’d researched bear footage. I happened upon a book about the bears of Brook Falls and I saw a picture from a distance of fish jumping and I wondered if you could shoot that, just head and shoulders.”
To get this image he’s now most identified with meant having a plan, then letting his instincts take over. It’s still his M.O. in the field today.
“Anticipation, pre-visualizing, observation is a huge part of it,” he says.
For “Catch of the Day” he was 45 yards from the bear on a platform 10 feet off the river. From his homework he says he knew the bears positioned themselves at the top of the falls, “which is kind of the prime fishing spot,” where they practically call to the salmon, “come to me.”
He says the picture became a sensation because “it’s unique – nobody got that moment before.” Some felt it was too good to be true – suggesting he’d manipulated or altered the image. “It was shot in ’88, before photo shop was invented,” says Mangelsen, who’s emphatic that the picture was not enhanced in any way.
Wherever he is, no matter what he’s photographing, his interest is documenting animals as they actually behave in their natural habitats.
“That’s my goal,” says Mangelsen, who decries the short-cut method of shooting animals on game farms.
“These farms have everything from snow leopards to tigers to deer, bears, foxes, cougars, every animal imaginable. Well, snow leopards don’t live on this continent, but for a few hundred dollars in the morning and for a hundred dollars more you can shoot a snow leopard and a raccoon in the morning and a cougar and a wolf in the afternoon and a fox and a caribou the next day, and by the time you’re done with the week and for a few thousand dollars you can have quite a collection.
“But baiting is used and the animals are half starved to death. There’s electric fences around them so they don’t leave. They are released to perform for the camera and the rest of the time they live in cages the size of a coffee table, which is criminal.”
An activist artist
His work in the wild has instilled in him a passion and activism.
“I’ve learned that all animals are really important, from the smallest to the largest, not just the bears and the wolves and the cougars but tiny animals. People may joke when certain things are put on the endangered species list – it might be a mouse or a small bird or a frog. But we’ve learned that the disappearance of something as tiny and familiar as bees is a whole chain reaction.
“We need to recognize they’re all important and we shouldn’t take it for granted. We also need to recognize individuals within a species are important. We shouldn’t be killing wolves. There’s no good reason to shoot a wolf unless it’s threatening your livestock or your person or your baby. Then you’re entitled to do something about it.”
But he says lawmakers tend to get their priorities mixed up.
“Nebraska’s a great example. They started this stupid cougar season even though there’s only 20 animals in the whole state. The season’s based on a couple legislators who think they saw a cougar moving across their pasture. I dare say I’ve seen more cougars in downtown Boulder, where I lived, than anyone in Neb. has in their entire life. They’re just part of the ecosystem there.”
He says in Colo. human encroachment on wilderness areas means foraging animals become part of the foothills experience. He says the answer’s not to kill displaced cougars but to coexist with them.
“Studies show it’s counterproductive to hunt things like cougars and wolves. Some people like to create fear of these hard carnivores. Some Joe Blow who hasn’t done his homework thinks they’re going to save babies and create safe zones if they kill all the big guys that prey on other animals. What they don’t realize is the big picture. They think they’re heroes somehow because they’re killing things with big teeth.
“It’s a Duck Dynasty kind of mentality.”
He’s outraged by Neb’s recently enacted cougar hunting season.
“It’s unconscionable to basically have open season on this great animal that you have so few of in the whole state. There’s no reason to kill a cougar other than a real valid threat to humans and none of that’s occurred in Neb. or in Wyoming. There’s no scientific reason. It doesn’t create more deer, it doesn’t make it safer. If you end up shooting the older, knowledgeable cougars which are still teaching their young how to hunt then the young are the ones that go out there to become juvenile delinquents looking for food in people’s backyards.”
He says the public has largely unfounded fears of animals like cougars or bears attacking humans.
“You’d be much more likely to get hit by lightning. People don’t put that into perspective. They’re fearful of what they don’t know.”
He supports well-informed hunting policies and practices. “I’m not against hunting if you do it ethically and cleanly and you do it for meat.”
He disdains hunters who kill animals for trophies. “They’re totally insensitive to the fact these animals have a great place in the ecosystem. Without them there are too many deer, they over graze, then there are no rabbits and beavers. It’s a top down thing.””
He’s quick to criticize hunting and wildlife management abuses. “I took a picture that appeared in the Jackson Hole Daily of these hunters at Grand Teton National Park shooting elk off the road. There were no rangers on duty – they were all at a meeting that morning and the hunters knew it for some reason. The game and fish and the park service got their tits in a wringer so to speak.
“National parks ought to be refuges for animals.”
The Cougar Fund tries to prevent mishaps like this from happening.
“The biggest threat to cougars is sport hunting. About 3,500 cougars a year are killed. Seventy five percent of those are females who are pregnant or have dependent young who will die without their mother. That’s tragic. It’s criminal to be shooting an animal that has young dependents. What our job to do is to educate people that cougars have a place and that killing cougars does not make it safer for people.”
He says the organization also monitors game and fish departments “to hold their feet to the fire.”
For his book Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions of Jackson Hole he followed a mother cougar and her kittens for 40-plus days, detailing their precarious existence and overturning some myths along the way.
Mangelsen’s travels around the world have put him on intimate terms with the challenges certain animals face on other continents.
“Africa’s in dire straits right now mostly because of the illegal trade in wildlife. Elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks and rhinos for their horns. They say one elephant is killed every 15 minutes. A lot of large elephants are gone. Poachers are shooting baby elephants that have tusks the size of a hot dog. Ivory and rhino horn are worth as much as gold is now. America has its own guilt over that in buying ivory trinkets. People don’t understand that every ivory trinket adds up to a wild animal. Most of the ivory and rhino trade is in China now because of the growth of the middle class there. The middle class didn’t exist not that long ago and now that millions have become affluent they want the cars, they want the fashions, they want the trinkets.
“Rhino horn has absolutely no more value than your toenails or fingernails do. There’s absolutely nothing there for medicinal purposes or aphrodisiacs or any of that. It’s all culture, all tradition, all bullshit. And ivory is just for ornamental purposes and as a status symbol.”
He’s appalled by this rampant destruction of species.
“It’s an amazing crime. People are trying to stop it. People need to stop buying the stuff. It’s not the poor villager who trades in it who’s the problem. I mean, he’s going to feed his family, that’s what comes first, and this is a lot easier than trying to eek out a living goat herding. It’s the people buying it and then of course all the middle men. Terrorist organizations are involved. Elephant ivory is considered valuable enough to be traded for guns, so not only are elephants being killed, so are people. I’m working potentially on a feature film on this issue.”
By now he’s photographed just about everything that walks or runs or flies – from elephants to elk and from penguins to peregrine falcons. Two bucket list exceptions are wild snow leopards and pandas. He’s developed some favorites, especially polar bears, brown bears and grizzly bears, and he just hopes it isn’t too late for these creatures.
“They’re really intelligent, they’re beautiful to look at, they’re at the top of the food chain. They’re like wolves in that way. Wolves are terribly persecuted for no good reason. With all these animals there’s a competition with man. It’s not only a competition its a threat.”
There are consequences to being so outspoken. He says, “I’ve been threatened by people for speaking out.”
If there’s one place in the world that has the greatest pull for him it’s the Serengeti in East Africa, which is where he was in January.
“I went to photograph elephants before they’re gone. They really figure they’ll be extinct in 14 years.”
In March he’ll be back home, on the Platte, where his journey in photography began, watching the cranes again. Jane Goodall at his side. He still can’t believe she’s a friend.
“She was always a hero.”
He’d briefly met her but it wasn’t until 2002, when he was asked to introduce her at a talk she made in Jackson Hole, he got to know her.
“She happened to have the following day off and I took her to Yellowstone and we just had a great time. We talked about cougars and Jane joined the Cougar Fund. She asked about the migration of cranes to Neb. and I told her we just happen to have a cabin right in the heart of that crane migration and she said I’m coming to see you and the cranes, and this will be her 13th year she’s come.
“Jane has been to thousands of more places than I have been and yet she comes to Neb. to see the cranes. That should tell you something – that these cranes and the river are very meaningful to her.”
He’s still in awe of her.
“She’s an inspiration to me in that she can keep going through a lot of adversity. She sees a lot of poverty and animal abuse. She’s working very hard on elephant-rhino preservation because it’s coming now to be such a big deal. She’s known for chimpanzees and yet she joined the Cougar Fund. She has more causes and energy than the man in the moon. She’s 80 now and yet she won’t let anything slow her down.
“She’s got so much energy, drive, passion. She’s unstoppable.”
As anyone who knows Mangelsen can attest, he could be describing his own indefatigable self. One that knows no bounds. But like the cranes he loves, no matter how far afield he travels, he always migrates home.
Follow his adventures at http://blog.mangelsen.com/.