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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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“I spent a lot of time reading about these birds,” he explains, “talking with researchers about them, and I think that has given the photographs another layer of depth because there’s all kinds of scientific nuance that I can connect with—and more and more so over time because you begin to see different patterns when you see different birds under different circumstances. I think one of the keys to my fascination with these birds is that they’re really complex creatures. They live as long as we do, they have intricate social lives, and they give me the opportunity to portray them as creatures with every bit of nuance in their intimate lives that we think of as being reserved for humans and other primates.”

Working with any subject on a scale of decades is a daunting task in the best of circumstances. To make the venture a success, though, the photographer must be willing to go the extra mile for the photographs. In Lanting’s case, it’s many thousands of extra miles, to the remote island locations that albatrosses call home.

Because Lanting’s personal project requires travel to the corners of the globe, it has necessitated photographing on assignment for paying clients whenever possible. In some cases, unrelated assignments would put him in an ideal position for a side trip into albatross territory. In other cases, he simply created his own assignments on behalf of the project. To keep the work alive, the photographer seized every opportunity to photograph and to partner with others of like mind.

“I’ve covered albatrosses on assignment for National Geographic, for GEO and for other publications repeatedly, in different places,” Lanting says, “but I’ve also gone out to spend time with them on my own. It’s fortunate that publications have commissioned me to do fieldwork specifically for them. Those are extended assignments, where the harder images, the conceptual images, the things that you really can’t achieve in the course of a casual visit of a couple of days or even a week. The places are harder to get to or they’re off-limits.

“If I had to add up the accumulated time I’ve spent with albatrosses,” he adds, “it may outweigh any other creature I’ve spent time with. It usually comes in collaboration with researchers; their world is my world. There are many tribes of albatrosses, and there’s one tribe of albatross researchers. They operate around the world and they’re totally passionate about these birds. Their work and their understanding really infuses my work.”

Though Lanting’s albatross project has received a lot of recent coverage, it’s by no means complete. Lanting saw no reason to ever declare the work a lifelong project in the first place, so why should he ever need to call it quits?

“I think it’s a great part of my professional life to have certain things that you make a lifelong commitment to,” he says. “I find it very gratifying to be able to return to certain themes over the years. As I do many other things, this is almost like a benchmark—after a couple of years, come back to other albatrosses in other places and challenge myself artistically to see what else I can learn from the birds. It will carry on; I’m not going to run out of inspiration. And as we understand them better, and I can interpret them better, the story is going to go on. I’m not thinking of an end result other than creating new opportunities to shoot.”

Frans Lanting is a world-renowned National Geographic photographer. See more of his work at www.lanting.com.


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