Animalia

Mammals, reptiles and fowls, oh my!

GETTING CLOSE

Working on the Wild Side

At Work

The first time I photographed a lion up close—close enough to hear the flutter in his breath—I was naïve and unafraid. We were in a large open-air enclosure, me crouched beneath the big cat, and him lounging on top of a giant cable spool. He looked well-fed, happy and seemed to be in an accommodating mood, and the animal handler—a purposeful, muscular man in the prime of his abilities—was just off to my right in case I needed help.

The lion and I were becoming friendly and getting comfortable with one another. With no barriers between us, I was able to get right below his maw to photograph him against the sky. Once, he playfully swiped at my camera and I didn’t even flinch. Like I said, I was naïve.

Then, suddenly, my feline friend lurched to his feet. His pupils narrowed, his breath tightened to a wisp, and every muscle in his body coiled with tension. He had spotted a jackrabbit hopping in the wild grasses behind me on the other side of the compound. Before I could fully process what was going on, he tore into the air directly above me and threw himself against the fence, the chain links shuddering in a wave that rippled in all directions from his point of impact.

The rabbit got away, of course, and the lion eventually calmed down. I, on the other hand, was a puddle, flattened against the grass, trying to remember how to breathe. It was instructional to note afterwards that Mr. Muscle, my would-be helper, was absolutely incapable of getting that big cat back into his quarters until Mr. Lion King himself was damned good and ready.

I didn’t get a great photo of the lion that day, but I was instantly a lot wiser about the real nature of what was to become my passion for the next twenty-five years. Getting unnaturally close to large, unpredictable animals to take their picture is thrilling, and maybe a little foolish, but ever since that wake-up call with my lion friend, it has always been—without fail—humbling.

From that day forward, I’ve been preoccupied with taking intimate portraits of all kinds of animals—lions and tigers and bears, crazed elephants, molting moose and bison with heads more massive than my entire body—and while ending up with a great photo is important, I’ve realized that just getting near these creatures is equally rewarding for me.

In their presence I become hyper-attentive and tap into my own animal nature in order to read their cues—their posture, grunts, the way they swish a tail, flatten an ear, or do or do not look at me. When the signals seem peaceful and I can convey my good intentions, I’m allowed to get close to take the particular type of portrait that I’m after.

grizzly I
Grizzly I

Sometimes getting the image I want calls for creative thinking, such as soliciting the attention of a sweet-toothed grizzly by having a marshmallow dangled above my head. He’d raise his paw to reach for the treat, I’d click the shutter, then duck—real fast [Grizzly I].

Other times, humming in a low, soothing pitch, I’d inch my way toward an animal, then crouch in the grass and wait. After I became sufficiently uninteresting as a target, I’d start talking in a monotone voice to prepare the beast for the eventual click of the shutter. In this way I’m able to photograph from below pointing upwards towards the sky to isolate the animal from her environment.

Yak I
Yak I

Usually, I intuitively know when the portrait session is over and slowly, respectfully, I make my exit. But there have been exceptions, like the time a mama yak [Yak I] decided I was too close to her calf. She prepared to charge. Surprisingly, I didn’t run from her, which would have been pointless anyway since she would have quickly plowed me down. Instead, drawing on an instinct I didn’t know I had, I took a few steps towards her. We were locked in a face-off, on the brink of a very uneven head-butting session. But being the reasonable mamas that we both turned out to be, we opted for peace and female solidarity, and cautiously backed away from each other—thank goodness.

camel II
Camel II

This is a weird way to photograph wildlife. Most people would shoot with a telephoto from a safe distance, but I use a wide-angle lens—meaning I have to get close—attached to a clunky, loud, manually-focused, medium-format, film camera, like those typically used in a controlled studio environment. Also, I have to look down into the viewfinder of my camera, which, annoyingly, shows the image left-to-right reversed. This means, when it looks like I need to go left to avoid, say, an amorous camel who won’t leave me alone after I took his picture [Camel II], I really should move right. And if I forget this, sometimes, as in the case of this camel, I run smack into him when I’m really trying to get away. Clearly, my equipment and my methodology couldn’t be more ill-suited for the type of photography I’m trying to do.

And that’s the point. For me, the challenge is slowing down, getting close, and staying calm, all the while trying to make an engaging portrait that captures the animal’s spirit. Shooting from below against an empty sky provides unusual perspective and creates a white studio-like backdrop that emphasizes the beauty of the animal’s form. Using black-and-white film brings to the equation an element of surprise and gratitude when I see, after development, that I actually caught something special. There are many moving parts to manage in this wacky process, and when everything does line up just right, it feels like I’ve been graced with nothing less than a little bit of magic.

Photographing animals the way I do has taught me so much about myself, my capabilities and what it means to be a human animal. Without discounting luck, which does account for much of my safekeeping so far, I also recognize there is truly a sense of primitive communication among all us beasts. I’m so grateful for the insights these creatures continue to offer me and cherish the privilege I have in being able to get close.

Ultimately, the naïve and unafraid exuberance of my early days has matured into a more informed, respectful perspective which has guided my work practice to this day. For this I’d especially like to thank my old friend and teacher, Mr. Lion King.

— NINE FRANÇOIS