National Geographic photographer Vincent J. Musi may photograph wild animals, but he’s no typical wildlife photographer. Instead of supertelephoto lenses and trail maps, Musi relies on studio-style lighting and his patience of a saint to make his truly remarkable animal portraits. It’s his specialty these days, though he never intended it to be this way.
As a kid in Pennsylvania, Musi’s first experience with a camera was playing pretend with a broken one. He’d look through the viewfinder and click the shutter. Later, he’d be given the opportunity to shoot the last few frames on a holiday roll from his father’s 126 Instamatic camera. Both experiences laid the foundation for the way he still shoots today: slowly, deliberately, sparingly.
“I liked the action of looking through something to photograph something else,” Musi says, “even if I wasn’t actually making pictures. Oddly enough, the ratio now is pretty close. I spend a lot of time looking through a camera and not actually photographing anything. Maybe that taught me patience, I don’t know. I do know that 30-some years later, most of the time I spend is not spent taking photographs. It’s spent doing everything but. Actual picture taking is the smallest part of what I do. I’d love to flip that on end, but it’s a very tiny part.”
Young Musi didn’t really even know that photography as a career existed. He’d seen photographers from the local paper, the Pittsburgh Press, shooting hockey games, so he figured that must be a thing. In fact, years later he’d do the same—working for the Press, he covered sports for the better part of a decade, spending about a dozen years in newspapers. Happy though he was to be a working photographer, he aspired to something more.
He wanted to make the kind of images he’d studied in library copies of National Geographic. Most inspiring were photographs by William Albert Allard and Sam Abell—thoughtful photographers who made meaningful images about things, Musi says, rather than of things.
“I quickly realized that there was a whole critical mass of folks working at this place,” Musi says, “who did the kind of things I would have loved to do. Who doesn’t want to do that? Take your time, slow it down, really make every little piece of that frame count. I was just absorbed in it, but incredibly unprepared to get to that place. But I did everything I could to do it. I started to try to work in that way as a photographer. More thoughtful than I had been before.
I was kind of a sports photographer in Pittsburgh, that’s all I did. And you’re out there with 100 people trying to photograph a football game or whatever. It’s a very competitive situation. And what I admired was the notion that I would be in some place far away from anybody else that I knew, by myself, making photographs and thinking about them in a different way. So I set that as a goal, not to work at Geographic, but to make those kinds of photographs. Could I incorporate that kind of style and look into the newspaper? It was a great paper at the time, and we had a lot of folks who were making really tremendous photographs. I think five of us from that paper went to work at Geographic.”
When Musi got his start working for National Geographic in the early 1990s, he photographed a broad variety of subjects—none of them animals. As a general-interest photographer, he published works on landscapes, places and people. Years later, after a stint away from the magazine in the early 2000s, an editor invited him back with a different type of assignment—something well outside of his wheelhouse. She’d seen a portrait he made of a man who rescues wild animals and she wanted to see more. Could he make portraits of the animals themselves?
“She said, ‘I want you to do this story on animal cognition,’” Musi says. “I didn’t know what that was; I had to look it up. I thought, ‘OK, smart animals, I get it.’ I thought she was crazy. But she said, ‘No, I really think you can do it.’ Like all things, I try to absolutely lower expectations, and I said, ‘Look if you’re willing to go along with me in the learning curve, I’ll do it.’ That is one of the all-time great things I will say about the Geographic: I have been given huge amounts of time and resources to actually learn how to do something that I didn’t know how to do. More than once in my career, really supportive people have given me great opportunities. I don’t even know how to repay them.”
“Anyway,” he continues, “I didn’t know a thing about lighting, I didn’t know a thing about animals, I didn’t know a thing about portraits, I didn’t know about anything. The first animal minds story I did, I did almost by myself. Because I was afraid. I’d never really worked with a crew, I never really had any help. Lights, seamless, coming up with things… I did it pretty much myself. We did a few things with more than one person, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s better. All I’ve got to worry about is the picture now. I don’t have to worry about hauling the c-stand in or where the light goes. Somebody else worries about that while I concentrate on this photograph.’ And so my work has changed, because it’s difficult for me to go across the street now without two or three people.”
“What I like,” he says, “is that we create something that didn’t exist. We create this light and we create a space, and then we go back to being sort of documentary photographers in that space we’ve created, like a diorama would be in a museum.”
For editorial assignments about animals, Musi works only with untrained, non-professional subjects. They’re not necessarily wild, but they’re not drugged or chained or otherwise forced to perform. At best, he uses squeaky toys or food treats to coax an animal in the general direction of his lens. He only works with accredited zoos and research facilities that provide access to the animals he needs—a daunting challenge in itself and the reason why so much of his time is spent anywhere other than behind a camera.
“For me to get in that room with that animal,” he says, “I don’t just show up and do that. I’m flying there, giving them a pitch, showing them what I’ve done, asking them for permission to do this because this could cost thousands of dollars on their behalf, so I have to make sure that I can cover overtime and employees, and they need the staff to do it. There’s a lot of logistics to do just the simplest thing.”
Though his photographs make it look easy, it can take an inordinate amount of time to make a portrait of an animal. Some sessions are quick, others may last three days. There’s no rhyme or reason.
“Everyone is different,” Musi says. “There’s a clouded leopard that took three days. There’s a tiger that didn’t take very long. We did five lions to get the lion right. They had five lionesses, and they said, ‘We’re going to bring the calmest one in.’ And of course she was the worst, because she was cranked up and never calmed down. And so we went through all of them, and they said, ‘This one’s the last one we’ve got, and she’s really high strung.’ Well, she was the best. She was fantastic. So you never really know.”
The typical approach finds Musi and his team building a makeshift studio in the animal’s enclosure or in a nearby area where the animal can be as comfortable as possible. Then, depending on the animal, Musi may be in the enclosure or he may be just outside, shooting through an opening in a fence. Such was the case when
he worked with the big cats at the Houston Zoo.
“They’re just the greatest people on the planet there,” Musi says. “They have seven of the eight big cats we needed to photograph. We did a cheetah on a roll of Savage black background paper, and we were able to put the lights where we wanted to…[but] imagine something smaller than a shipping container; not even that big. Really small rooms, and you could only put light from the front, or maybe the top, but not behind or to the sides. I couldn’t put a light where I wanted it. I can’t illuminate a cat with an edge light because I can’t get it in there physically.”
“I’ve been bitten a few times,” he says, “but it’s the things you never think about. I got bit by a domestic pig. A heritage pig out in a field. He went after my kneecap. They were real docile and gentle. Who knew? There’s a crow that tried to poke my eyes out. It’s a New Caledonian crow, and I went all the way to Oxford to photograph that. He’s really hard to photograph.
He’s a really cool bird, he’ll sit on your shoulder, but he doesn’t want to be on that seamless. A lot of animals don’t. That took two days, maybe three. Over two days. I have a smelly lab coat over my head, and I have a camera with a 50mm stuck in the sleeve, and I’ve got it rolled back up. Because if I’m not paying attention, with that beak of his he will literally poke my eye out as soon as I turn away from him. He’s very aggressive. They all look easy, but they’re all a little bit different.”
“And then we did a guy who has a cougar as a pet,” he says, “and I built a cage to be in. He can be with that animal, but I can’t. I’ve been fortunate I haven’t had any really close calls. Mostly I don’t want to get an animal hurt. We did an elephant on a seamless. Some people might put a sandbag on every stand and walk away. I said, ‘I’m going to put a human on every light.’ Those videos where all hell breaks loose? They’re not funny to me. When we work, it’s pretty boring in that room. We’re over the top with safety.”
So does the photographer get a thrill by putting himself in harm’s way? Not in the least. He does get a thrill, but it’s from the experience of being up close with his subjects. There’s no way he’s going to risk his own health or that of the animal.
“For the lion in Houston,” Musi continues, “that’s Jonathan. There’s a lot between us. He is not happy about being inside. And so I’ve got a fence between us, his cage, which is very heavy-duty stuff. And I’ve got a lens right up against it. And I can’t shoot through it because of the strobes I’m at f/11, the lens has got to be through it somewhat. But I’m right there with him. Anyway, he’s mad that he’s inside. He’s not mad at me, he’s just messing with me. But every once in a while he will stand up and roar and pound the fence over my head. Which is the kind of thing… you’ll piss yourself.”
“We had a guy with a bear once,” he says. “It was in his backyard in a cage. And I had another guy, Eric Metzger, who helped me with the story. And to get the bear’s attention, I would have Eric run around the outside of the enclosure while I was inside the enclosure with the bear. And there was a point where the lights were set up and the bear would come around this corner, I would be in the cage with the bear, make the picture, and people would pull me out of the cage as the bear came at me. Which was totally the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
That approach may not be typical, but Musi’s resolve to go far above and beyond to get the ideal image most certainly is. He’s a perfectionist, he says, with a hard time knowing when to quit. He always wants one more chance at the perfect shot, the image he knows “he can’t come back and get tomorrow.” It’s because he knows what it takes to stand out in the pages of National Geographic.
“I want you to care about something you didn’t think you cared about,” Musi says. “That’s what I’m after, whether I’m photographing some exotic thing or I’m doing a honeybee, I want you to care about it by the nature of the kind of image that I made.”
“Every one of these,” he says, “is meant to startle you in a certain way. Make you think twice about it. Whether it’s just the sheer beauty of an animal or where they happen to be. With any of these stories, I’ve got to make one that you’re going to care about. That’s what I’m always after every time I pick up a camera. And that’s the challenge with Geographic that will push you over the edge: 40 million people are going to see it, and they’re never going to throw it away. You’re going to be living with this image the rest of your life, it’s going to live on. So you really try to make it work. You try to make it the best you can. So I don’t give up. ‘No, we’re going to stay a little bit longer, a little bit longer. Come back the next day. Come back the next day.’ That kind of thing.”
After all that, how does he know when he’s got the shot?
“There’s this pause,” Musi says, “this moment that you’re looking for where they’re almost at rest, and then you get this majesty, this beautiful thing you’re looking for. To me, that’s often what I’m after, that majestic portrait. Can it be iconic, I don’t know, but I just want to make the best damn picture of that animal that anyone’s ever seen.”
Do you know it when you see it?
“No,” he says. “Even when I see it on the back of the camera, I want to go back and try it one more time.”