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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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“The strobes have become more sophisticated,” he says, “so there’s a higher success rate with doing things under very fluid conditions where you have to be very careful. Lighting techniques—that alone is worth the price of admission. Digital cameras have given me new wings.

“The main problem with digital camera technology under these remote field conditions,” Lanting adds, “is recharging batteries—camera batteries and laptops. I use solar panels in the field. I’ve used car batteries on occasion as an extra external battery I can hook a camera or computer gear up to. Ultimately, I can scale back, leave the laptop behind and take along portable hard drives like the Epson P-5000.”

Even with the added challenges of working with high-performance electronics in the most remote regions of the world, Lanting wouldn’t trade his current equipment for that of his early days. Although film photography didn’t so heavily rely on scarce electricity, it presented significant issues of
its own.

“It goes both ways,” he says. “The simplicity of film-based camera equipment from 20 years ago also had its problems. You spend a lot of time in remote locations and you’re really not sure what your success rate is. I started photographing these birds in flight before there were even autofocus lenses—and photographing an albatross in flight as it comes at you at 50 miles an hour in a storm is a very challenging thing with manual focus lenses. So one of the solutions that I adopted early on was customizing a Polaroid back to fit onto the back of one of my Nikon camera bodies. That setup gave me a better idea when I was doing experimental things or making high-risk kinds of images.”

Equipment evolution isn’t the only sweeping change facing a photographer on a never-ending journey. There’s also the evolution in what the pictures are about. In Lanting’s case, his project depended on a subject that would be engaging and intriguing on first glance to even a novice. When he scratched the surface a little more, however, he found a gold mine of visually interesting subject matter.

“That comes from studying the birds and understanding them better and better,” Lanting says. “These are fascinating birds, with a very complex social behavior. They form lifelong partnerships after lengthy courtship rituals that are very expressive visually. The places where albatrosses come to shore are generally remote oceanic islands, and the birds have very little inborn fear of humans, so that enables me—if I have the right patience and sensitivity—to work with them almost as if I’m another albatross. It’s like portraying people in social relationships: Rather than looking at them from a distance, I can get right within their zone of privacy, and that leads to a much more intimate kind of imagery of birds than is normally possible. I found that very satisfying originally, and I continue to draw from that.”

Lanting did what any photographer on a large-scale assignment must—he learned about his subject not only during the time he spent photographing, but also during the time he spent away from the viewfinder. He searched for information about albatrosses, as well as scientists and colleagues to partner with, as a way to broaden the scope and eventual understanding of these intriguing creatures.


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