Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Charging elephant. Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, 1993
Photograph by Michael Nichols, Nat Geo Image Collection

This Photographer Transformed the Way We See Animals

A new biography highlights the genre-bending wildlife photography of Michael 'Nick' Nichols.

Good storytellers know how to observe by recognizing that they are part of something larger than themselves. They are immersed in the experience.

Michael “Nick” Nichols is one of these those people. Over the course of his decades-long career he has combined this innate talent with an artistic eye to create photographs of lions, tigers, elephants, chimpanzees, and gorillas for the pages of National Geographic.

His documentary approach as well as his willingness to creatively push the boundaries of technology using camera traps and remote-controlled robots have raised our awareness— not only of the animals themselves, but also the larger context in which they exist. This is what makes the difference between being a “wildlife photographer to being a photojournalist in the wild," as Melissa Harris writes in A Wild Life, a new biography about Nichols.

Harris first met Nichols over 20 years ago when she was an editor at Aperture, where she is currently editor-at-large. She remembers being struck by the way he combined elements of fine art and documentary photography to tell stories about the natural world. “The way he worked with scientists and writers inspired great mutual respect. He was letting science inform his work but he wasn’t being illustrative; he took information and interpreted it. He had a vision and a voice, while bearing witness.”

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A self-portrait covered in sweat bees. Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo, 2002

The idea to collaborate on his biography was cemented after Harris spent time with Nichols in the Serengeti in March 2012, where he was working on a story about a pride of lions for National Geographic. She recalls watching him shift from chatting with the team of people in the field —scientific researchers, his assistant, his wife—to being “the most intense, focused person I had ever seen, observing and photographing these lions. I was fascinated by that,” she recalls. “Watching this team, and then doing the interviews for the bio, I got a sense of a remarkable cast of characters– all these men and women who are so obsessive about what they do. When you mix that obsession with talent you have something really powerful.”

She realized that each and every one of the living beings in this story is a character, including Nick. Harris says she interviewed a total of 97 people to get a complete picture of how years of collaboration helped shape the way that he combines his own obsession and talent.

“Nick is not trying to be the animal whisperer. He is really good about not anthropomorphizing– which doesn’t mean he doesn’t come up with stories about them to get started, but he knows the science. He’s learning how to be physically one with them rather than imposing himself. He’s a true observer. All of this allows him to be in the field with a certain amount of grace.”

In an age where photographs are ubiquitous, Harris hopes by presenting this interwoven narrative, that readers will understand the power of in-depth, nuanced storytelling.

Female lions and cubs from the Vumbi pride. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 2012

“Almost everybody can take a great photograph. Storytelling with that kind of narrative and edge is a whole different kind of talent that requires a different commitment.”

“The thing about Nick’s pictures is that you go back to them,” Harris continues. “He’s not hit and run about it. Each time you go back to one of his images you see more.”

Harris’s job was to weave all of this together to tell a credible story of the issues to which Nick has dedicated his career—to use his story as a foil, as she puts it, to larger issues of conservation.

Toward that end, Harris partnered with Peter Barberie, the curator of photographs for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to produce an exhibit featuring Nick's photographs along with wildlife-inspired works from the larger collection. "The wild has always been a profound subject for artists, and is now more endangered than it has ever been," Barberie says, adding that just like objects in a museum need careful preservation to survive, so do animals and natural spaces.

A Wild Life: A Visual Biography of Photographer Michael Nichols written by Melissa Harris is available from Aperture.

The exhibition, Wild: Michael Nichols, will be on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. from October 12, 2017 until January 15, 2018.