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Monday, August 10, 2009

Frans Lanting: The Life Pursuit

Frans Lanting’s Albatross project provides not only an amazing record of a flying legend, but also a guide for photographers interested in pursuing their own life’s work


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Putting together a long-term photo project is doable, even in a difficult economic climate like this one. Frans Lanting’s Albatross project has been pieced together over a quarter century. In Lanting’s case, a personal fascination with these large, legendary seabirds provided the motivation.
Setting out on a lifelong photographic project is a daunting task no matter what you’re going to shoot. That’s why Frans Lanting didn’t set out on a lifelong project. He discovered a subject that intrigued him, he photographed it, then he photographed it some more. The more he shot, the more he learned. The more he learned, the more he wanted to keep shooting. This is how a lifelong assignment is born.

Lanting has photographed albatrosses since early in his career. The albatross, the giant seabird best known for its immense North Pacific range, is at once the simplest of subjects, as well as one of endless fascination. For Lanting, the goal was never to turn them into a life pursuit. It just worked out that way.

“This is a subject that I’ve returned to time and again in the course of my career,” he explains. “I started seeking out albatrosses within the first two years after I became a professional photographer. I was hooked the first time I saw an albatross in real life. You’ve got to keep in mind that these birds are legendary. Poems have been written about them, legends have been constructed around the way they fly. They’re as mythical as a bird can be, and yet most people have never seen an albatross in real life. We have these strange suppositions about them—the idea of wearing an albatross around your neck being a stereotype for a burden, and in real life, the birds are completely the opposite. They’re as free and as far-roaming and as mobile and as graceful as any wild creature can be. That’s an element in the photography that I do with them—to express that sense of perpetual motion and grace in flight. There’s a whole mythical aura about them that drew me in initially, but as soon as you spend time with them on the ground, there’s an intimacy to their life that becomes irresistible.

“I’ve returned to them many, many times,” Lanting continues. “From that has come a view of a whole family of birds under different circumstances, using a wide range of cameras and techniques over the years—because in the course of these 25 years, the camera technology has enabled me to do much more sophisticated things, the imagery has grown as a result of that, and there are also new scientific insights and conservation issues.”

A long-term photography project is all about evolution. Changes occur not only within the subject, but also within the photographer himself—in terms of both his understanding of the subject and the evolution in his tools. In Lanting’s case, everything has evolved dramatically—subject, photographer and equipment—since the project began in the early 1980s.

“I think the evolution of camera technology,” he says, “the move from analog to digital, higher sensitivity of the sensors vis-à-vis more primitive film, more sophistication in fill-flash technology, optics—all of these things are a subtheme when I look at the images from what I used to do and what I do now.”

A long-term photography project is all about evolution. Changes occur not only within the subject, but also within the photographer himself—in terms of both his understanding of the subject and the evolution in his tools. In Lanting’s case, everything has evolved dramatically—subject, photographer and equipment—since the project began in the early 1980s.

Clearly, the digital revolution has changed the way Lanting has covered albatrosses across his career. Increased ISO sensitivity has recently allowed him to shoot with faster shutter speeds and greater depth of field—all valuable when trying to bring the story of an entire species into perspective within a single frame. Equally important, though, are the simpler things—features like built-in LCD viewing screens and blazingly fast auto-focus. There are some shots Lanting dreamed of shooting 20 years ago that he’s only now able to execute. The greatest technological advancement has been in the area of strobe lighting, since Lanting now can utilize the LCD for review and to make subtle changes to complex lighting scenarios literally on the fly.

 

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