Thomas D. Mangelsen has spent a few of the most memorable moments of his life in the company of twins. "It was a huge treat," he enthuses. The twins in question were gorillas and the sight was an extraordinary one, even for a wildlife photographer as experienced as Mangelsen. "It was amazing to see them. It's rare for twins to survive in the wild."
Mangelsen has devoted his life to capturing such moments, a pursuit that was honored this month when the photographer was named one of the "100 Most Important People in Photography" by American Photo magazine.
"He is without a doubt one of this country's most successful wildlife photographers," said David Schonauer, editor-in-chief of American Photo. "His accessible images—shot in Alaska, Africa, Canada and near his home at the foot of the Teton Mountain Range in Jackson, Wyo.—depict animals in styles that range from the merely adorable to the mighty and majestic..."
Speaking with Mangelsen from his Jackson home about the accolade, he seemed humbled by the acknowledgment. "I think it's a great recognition and honor, especially for a magazine like American Photo to recognize a wildlife photographer. It's a huge honor for me, as they are more geared to the art and fashion scene, more avant-garde photography."
This is only the third time American Photo has produced such a list, which selects from all aspects of photographic careers, not just the figures behind the camera.
What sets Mangelsen apart from the many nature photographers out there, is his mission to increase the public's awareness of the natural world and its inhabitants—in the hope that those who see and buy his work will be encouraged to help preserve it.
Another—increasingly unique—aspect of his work is his purity. He only photographs animals in their natural habitat in the wild, a principle he will travel to all four corners of the globe to uphold. And he does not use computer manipulation to add anything to his photographs. The prints hanging in his galleries are precise renditions of what he saw through his lens.
Limited edition prints of his breathtaking images are available through his Web site, www.mangelsen.com, and 18 Images of Nature galleries across the country, one of which is on Main Street in Ketchum. These outlets help him to spread his message: "May these images inspire you to experience and preserve the wonders of our natural world."
Some of the most dramatic images in his galleries are of exotic creatures and intriguing landscapes, but Mangelsen's heart is with the native creatures of his homeland. His newest image release features a mélange of common creatures found in American backyards. From bunnies to ravens, these common place animals are given a whole new dimension when captured with a Mangelsen lens.
"One I like a lot (from the new release) is the egret," said Mangelsen. Birds were his first passion, the reason he became a nature photographer. "I've photographed a lot of egrets over the years but this one was sitting in a mangrove swamp right at sunset—preening and stretching its wing and it was a surprise when it stretched its wing out and the light was directly behind it. It was like, 'whoa!'
"I had to back up and change lenses, but fortunately it did it for about 20 seconds, long enough for me to get my act together! That was a nice gift to have that opportunity against the light like that."
Having striven to protect and support nature for the past 20 years—he founded The Cougar Fund in 2001 to defend the mountain lion—I asked him if he feels humans are beginning to have any positive impact on the protection of wildlife. For example, does the recent discovery that the ivory-billed woodpecker is still in existence prompt him to rejoice in the efforts being made?
"I think the ivory-billed survived in spite of man's destruction of its habitat—I don't think man did anything to protect the ivory-billed. It's nice they're around but it's probably not due to our efforts. It's very difficult for organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and conservationists to get ahead of the game because there are so many threats on every front.
"The biggest threat at the moment is the (proposed) drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which should never be drilled," Mangelsen continued passionately.
"We should have a better energy policy and we don't. And when you see President Bush kissing the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ... well there's something wrong with that picture. It's a sad state, but we have to be as positive as we can—we have to keep fighting for the environment."