It’s one of the most iconic images in nature photography: A massive brown bear stands atop the rapids at Brook’s River Falls, Alaska, patiently waiting as a sockeye salmon flies directly toward its open mouth. A nanosecond click of the camera later, you can practically hear the snap of the bear’s powerful jaws as the unlucky fish becomes dinner.
“Catch of the Day,” taken in 1988, is emblematic of Thomas D. Mangelsen’s singular approach to wildlife photography. He creates more than images of the animals and birds in and of themselves. He establishes narratives and creates backdrops to help us understand subjects in their own worlds.
A sampling of his stories is on view in the Durham Museum’s “Thomas D. Mangelsen: A Life in the Wild,” a traveling exhibition that premiered in Omaha last month. It features 40 “Legacy Reserve” photographs, carefully culled highlights of the some 4 million photos he’s taken over a 40-year career.
That career began in Nebraska along the Platte River, in the heart of the annual sandhill crane migration, said Mangelsen, 72.
“My dad took me hunting and fishing starting when I was 2 or 3,” Mangelsen said during a recent phone interview.
“In those early days, we hunted ducks, geese, rabbit and pheasant and fished. We did that every moment (I was) off school and on weekends. We spent hours during spring and winter in duck blinds waiting and watching, watching and waiting.”
Such was his father’s passion for the outdoors, Mangelsen said, that Dad would even call school asking if “Tommy could take the day off — it’s a good hunting day.”
Father and son also looked after the land. The young Mangelsen learned to cull willows and cut grasses from the channels of the Platte to coax water back to the river when it got too dry.
“It was my introduction to conservation,” he said. “I can’t emphasize how much Nebraska and the Platte River changed my life.”
Mangelsen attended Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, and did postgraduate studies in zoology and wildlife biology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Colorado State University.
But it was the time he spent at his father’s side, he says, that most prepared him for a career as one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers.
“All the waiting and observation led to my picking up a camera,” he said.
That camera (his first a humble Pentax) began accompanying Mangelsen around the globe. He’s shivered in the remote icescapes of Alaska, walked the cracked earth of the Serengeti and ridden an elephant through the wild jungles of India.
Patience remains central to his approach.
He once spent 42 days photographing a mountain lion with its kittens near his home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming — finally getting the image he wanted, the mother lion sitting at the entrance to the den at sunset. The image became the cover of his book, “Spirit of the Rockies.”
What makes his photographs so spectacular, though, has less to do with the photo itself. Animals are never just animals to Mangelsen. They’re fully sentient beings, as capable as humans of feeling emotions like love, joy and grief.
“You see these animals who work so hard to provide for their babies and who play with their young,” he said. “There is no question in my mind that they are intelligent. Anyone who has a pet knows how incredibly smart animals are.”
That point is evident in portraits of grizzly and polar bears, Mangelsen said.
Ursids are his favorite subjects, and Mangelsen has taken some of the world’s most famous images of polar bears in the wild.
His humorous “Bad Boys of the Arctic” depicts a mother polar bear standing watchfully over her two male offspring, one of them casually lounging on his back. “Polar Dance” — named one of the “40 Most Important Nature Photographs of All Time” by the International League of Conservation Photographers — shows two males play-fighting against a white backdrop.
Closer to home in Wyoming, Mangelsen has been photographing “399,” a 22-year-old grizzly named for her tracking tag. For more than a decade, he’s chronicled the indomitable “rock star” bruin as she’s made her way across Grand Teton Park and the Greater Yellowstone area, raising sets of cubs.
Mangelsen feels a kinship with 399, and the famous matriarch seems to trust him, often crossing the road in proximity to where he’s parked.
“She seems to recognize the car, either by sight or by smell,” he said.
Mangelsen made headlines when he came out in opposition of a grizzly bear hunt — the first in 44 years in and around Yellowstone — scheduled for this fall.
Officials ruled bears in the area had sufficiently recovered from the threat of extermination, and the hunt would have allowed for up to 22 grizzlies to be killed in Wyoming and one in Idaho. Some hunters even bragged that they hoped to kill 399 because she’s perhaps the most famous grizzly in the world.
Mangelsen won a lottery for one of the few coveted hunting slots, and his position in the hunting queue would have enabled him to use his camera to eliminate some of the allotted hunting days. For now, it’s a moot point; a federal judge in September ruled to cancel the hunt, returning grizzlies to the Endangered Species list.
Mangelsen remains cautious, citing an immediate challenge by Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney to get the bears removed from the list again.
“It’s hard to celebrate,” he said.
The photographer said he has no beef with people hunting for food. He has friends who hunt and he, of course, has engaged in the sport himself. But he says those who hunt “for fun” and kill “to hang a head” on a wall are unethical.
“It’s incomprehensible that you would just take 399’s life,” he said. “She’s not doing anything. She’s just minding her own business, living her own life.”
Mangelsen also is co-founder of The Cougar Fund, which strives to help the public understand the importance of cougars, also known as mountain lions, in the natural landscape.
He opposes mountain lion hunting in his home state.
“They very rarely get into trouble with humans and/or their property,” he said. “If they do pose an immediate threat to humans and/or their property, then, and only then, should they either be captured alive and relocated — or killed in those extreme circumstances.”
Mangelsen returns to the Platte every year (aside from one or two when he was in the field) to witness Nebraska’s sandhill crane migration. He describes it as one of nature’s greatest miracles and says it’s something all Nebraskans should witness.
“Life along the Platte is so precious, and it’s in our own backyard,” he said. “I hope my photographs make people more aware of how important it is to protect animals and their natural habitats. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves.”