The Wild Life of Nature Photographer Thomas Mangelsen

A world-renowned nature photographer visited Chicago for the opening of an exhibition of his truly magnificent wildlife pictures at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.


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Brandis Friedman: A brown bear pursues his catch of the day. A cheetah mother gives her cubs a bath. Birds of a feather… you guessed it.

One eagle-eyed photographer captured all of these images without Photoshop or digital manipulation.

When Tom Mangelsen is out in nature, patience is as important as his camera.

  • “Light in the Forest” (© Thomas D. Mangelsen)

    “Light in the Forest” (© Thomas D. Mangelsen)

  •  “Dreamcatcher” (2000), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

    “Dreamcatcher” (2000), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

  • “Amboseli Crossing” (1994), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

    “Amboseli Crossing” (1994), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

  • “Bathtime in Maasailand” (1994), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

    “Bathtime in Maasailand” (1994), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

  • “Catch of the Day” (1988), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

    “Catch of the Day” (1988), © Thomas D. Mangelsen

Thomas Mangelsen, photographer: Most of the time when I’m out I try to get into a, some people say, “You’re in your Zen zone, aren’t you, Tom?” because I just block out anything else that’s going around me, and I just try to focus on what I’m after, so I suppose you could call it meditating in a way, but mostly it’s being very aware of your surroundings – what the animal might do or not do – and the background is really important in my photographs.

Friedman: Throughout his long career, Mangelsen has photographed extensively on the seven continents.

Mangelsen: Most of the time I go back to places that I know well, that I’ve been before, maybe I didn’t get the picture I wanted so I go back and better time of year, better time of day, maybe a little different place, so a lot of it is being a keen observer I think and, and then trying to understand the behavior of the animal and where it might go, and gesture.

Friedman: He grew up in Nebraska near the Platte River and developed a keen interest in the annual crane migration nearby.

His work has been featured in National Geographic, on PBS, and it’s in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

At the Nature Museum, the exhibit features signature photographs from Mangelsen’s 40 years in the wild.

Deb Lahey, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum: It is a great fit. We’re really passionate about trying to connect our community to nature and science, even in Chicago, but to have something like this and expand the horizons, we just knew the visitors would really appreciate it.

Friedman: The photographer was raised by an avid sportsman who shaped his views.

Mangelsen: I grew up hunting and fishing. My dad, every day he had a chance he’d be out hunting or fishing, and he taught me a lot about being a good sport, being an ethical hunter and not shooting anything except if you’re going to eat it. So trophy-hunting is not exactly fair chase and sporting, and there’s no reason to put a big animal on your wall, especially things like, maybe you want a rhino or polar bear. There’s no reason to kill animals like that. You don’t eat them.

Friedman: Witnessing the loss of habitats and animals over the years has inspired him to activism.

Mangelsen: With the administration today, it’s going backwards a lot. They want to get rid of the Endangered Species Act and, looking at the bald eagle here, bears, everything (is) going to be endangered even more than they were before.

I’m more of an activist today than ever because we’re more threatened with climate change and especially endangered species. We’re losing animals.

Friedman: We asked the photographer about his plans for the near future.

Mangelsen: Well I’m going to go home and there’s a bear called “399” which I did a book about. It’s a bear in Teton Park that’s been around for a dozen years. She’s 22 years old has had 17 offspring and I ended up doing a book about her but I continue to document her behavior, and her cubs and she’ll be coming out of the den in four or five days so that’ll be the first thing I’ll do and then I’m going back to Africa to photograph rhinos and elephants.

Lahey: It is his life’s story, his life’s work. “A life in the wild.” It really speaks to that.

More on this story

The exhibition “A Life in the Wild: The Photography of Thomas D. Mangelsen” is on view at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum through June 2, 2019.

Note: This story was first published on April 10, 2019.

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