Photographer Frans Lanting

A world-reknowned photographer dedicates his life to documenting wildlife and our relationship with nature.

For the past three decades, photographer Frans Lanting has dedicated his life to documenting wildlife and our relationship with nature. His unforgettable images capture a moment of communion with the animal realm, but despite the underlying intensity of his work, Lanting is notoriously reluctant to discuss his experiences in the field. Some have described this evasiveness as superstition, others as spiritual. “When I’m in the field taking photographs,” says Lanting, “everything else drops away and the only thing that exists is my encounter.”

In his book, Eye to Eye, Lanting shares the most memorable of these encounters, from the shorebirds and elephant seals that inhabit the coast near his home in Northern California to orangutans in the remote rain forests of Borneo. “There’s something so fundamental and universal about connecting with faces, even the faces of other creatures,” Lanting reflects. “In Eye to Eye, I didn’t want anything to take away from that experience.” Lanting’s solution was sparse simplicity; he relegated text to the back of the book and let the photographs roam freely across two-page spreads.

Lanting is not only a professional photographer, but also a professional nomad. In his office on the coastside mountains north of Santa Cruz, he is preparing for a month-long excursion. This trip will include a workshop in Florida, a reception for his exhibit in Hamburg, Germany, a brief television appearance in Holland, followed by shoots at the Royal Botanical Gardens in England and the Paris Museum of Natural History. From Europe, he travels to “the field,” to Madagascar where he will photograph a newly-discovered species of lemur and document a national park that is being ravaged by mining. Despite this impending whirlwind of activity, Lanting seems outwardly calm as he talks about his work.

His confidence originates with the meticulous research that precedes each project. In addition to scouting locations d gathering information about his subject, Lanting often plans a shoot with storyboards and sketches before departure. On location, he may use Polaroids® to test exposure, composition and to visualize how an image will look in print. “My subject matter doesn’t separate me from what my colleagues do in fashion, annual reports or commercial work,” he explains. “I go out with certain images in mind—very much like a commercial photographer. Rather than shooting in a controlled studio environment, Lanting must work with the unpredictable backdrop of nature. “There’s always serendipity, he says. “Luck always takes over.”

In the field Lanting prefers to work independently, although he calls in help for more demanding assignments. In an isolated location that requires a base camp and supply lines to the outer world, for example, he may hire an entire team of assistants. While photographing emperor penguins in Antarctica for National Geographic, shifting ice made it too dangerous to work alone. “But even there, I walked out into flocks of penguins until there was nothing but white.”

Lanting was born in Rotterdam, Holland in 1951. As a child he was profoundly influenced by Nobel Prize-winning Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. In this children’s book, a young boy is shrunk by a magician and is accepted into the animal world by a flock of migrating geese. During his adventures the boy witnesses hunting and the destruction of animal habitat. When he is restored to his former size, the leader of the geese implores him to remember the human role in their plight.

At the age of 21, Lanting made his first journey into the photographic realm when he spent a vacation in the United States hiking and taking pictures in national parks. Disappointed with the results, Lanting purchased a better camera when he returned to Rotterdam, and began learning the nuances of photography. After completing a Master’s degree in environmental economics at Erasmus University in 1977, he enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz to study environmental planning. Inspired by the diversity of life inhabiting the nearby coastline, he made the transition from academia to nature photography.

For his first subject, Lanting focused on the sanderlings that foraged on the California seashore. He spent weeks observing the birds, until they became accustomed to his presence. “Animals are no different than people,” he says. “You become sensitive, non-threatening and you get into a state of synchronicity with your subject. And that pays off.” The patience and diligence required by that first shoot continue to guide his work.

Lanting has received numerous awards, including top honors from World Press Photo, and his photographs have been exhibited in museums throughout the world. In addition to producing many books on nature, Lanting reaches new audiences by licensing stock images and through other publishing ventures. More importantly, Lanting has said that, like the child in Lagerlöf’s fictitious tale, he has become a real- life intermediary between humans and other species.

He now balances his time between assignments for publications including GEO, Stern and National Geographic, and personal projects which offer him the advantage of greater control. “It’s difficult for designers without specific knowledge about the animals to know what I represent in my images,” he says. For this reason, many of his books are produced in-house at his studio, where Lanting can supervise the design process.

“Working with great editors, I’ve learned over the years how important it is to come up with the right context, and to align words and images as a team.” For his book, Eye to Eye, Lanting and writer Christine Eckstrom teamed up with designer Jenny Barry, and together, they packaged the book for publisher Benedikt Taschen. “We were given complete control over the book, from initial concept to final design,” says Lanting, “and that’s very unusual in publishing.” He cites the close photo editor-photographer relationship with National Geographic as invaluable, and a rare exception in the magazine world. His 1990 photo essay on the 8,500 square mile Okavango Delta in Botswana is the longest wildlife story published in the magazines 100-year history. Lanting expanded this essay into the book Okavango: Africa’s Last Eden, and had the opportunity to collaborate with designer Lucille Tenazas. “She found a beautiful form, a typography that calls out like poetry,” he says.

Although Lanting s work draws him to the far reaches of the planet, he always returns to his California home for sanctuary. “I like it here,” he smiles. “I can be on the phone with someone in New York, and I can see bobcats walk through the field outside.”

This article was originally published in Communication Arts Magazine. © Philip Krayna.