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Frans Lanting

Frans Lanting is a magician at mixing artificial and natural light and blending himself into the majesty of nature. He’s seen the world in all its splendor, but to him nothing is more beautiful than home. Lanting has lived in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Santa Cruz for two decades now. In fact, National Geographic commissioned him for a shoot outside his front door of bobcats and coyotes playing in his meadow.

Down the coast, he documented the migration of Monterey Bay shorebirds and the birthing of elephant seals. He hiked backwoods trails and chartered a helicopter to capture the rugged charm of the Big Sur landscape. “We live in a world-class environment,” Lanting says. “The climate, natural beauty and ecological richness” of the Central Coast make it one of Frans’ seven wonders of the world – quite a compliment from a man who’s been on expeditions to every continent on the globe.

An editor with National Geographic called Lanting “the finest nature photographer living today.” Along the way, Frans has seen his fair share of danger, unexplored habitat, and endangered species. He’s spent his life trying to bring awareness to faraway areas in desperate need of preservation by documenting animals in their element. “It’s a game, a dance, a back and forth with the animal. It’s an ability and a willingness to open yourself up to animals. I feel comfortable with them and I often succeed in making them feel comfortable in my presence.” Three techniques set Frans Lanting’s work apart from the field – understanding animals, technical skills and field knowledge. His mastery of all of them is the reason why his images turn animals into art so completely.

UNDERSTANDING ANIMALS

There is no photographer that gets closer to animals than Frans Lanting. He works as intimately with them as zoo keepers, but he’s doing it in the wild. It’s almost like Lanting has a sixth sense in animal speak. “I need to be close and that means the animal is cognizant of where I am, who I am, and what I am doing. It means exploring boundaries of what an animal tolerates. They have a body language and it’s their behavior that you pay attention to. The key is to anticipate.”

On an expedition to Peru several years ago, Lanting blended into a riverbank where dozens of macaws were feeding. Patiently he waited on a tower 80 feet above the water. He watched as, periodically, the birds would fly off and then come back for more food. He was mesmerized by the beautiful colors of the macaws in flight. As he got lost in the birds, the once pristine river backdrop had suddenly become a distraction. As he studied their behavior he came up with a plan. “I set the focus in such a way that the background was totally neutral, so it looked like a Japanese screen instead of a river. Then I waited. And that final moment of how the birds distributed themselves was serendipitous.”

It’s that unforeseen element of nature that Lanting loves most. No amount of planning could have guaranteed that shot: three different types of macaw with wings spread in different modes of flight. They all passed perfectly by his preset depth of field and focus. Frans had a split second to react and he did, preserving an image in the wild of birds most of us have only seen in a cage.

TECHNIQUE

“Photography is painting with light. It’s the definition of what I do,” Lanting says. As a result, he has been called the flash master. Wherever he travels, he takes a mini studio’s-worth of lighting equipment with him. Many of his images showcase his subtle ability to mix natural with artificial light. “Flash gives me an additional possibility to play with light. Oftentimes I can use a flash to illuminate things or I can use it for more creative applications.”

Lanting demonstrated just how original he could be with artificial light during a trip to Kenya in 1996. He’d been following a pride of lions for hours one afternoon. The rest of the group went off searching for food and left one lion behind. Lanting decided to wait the loner out. He set up shop in a field, convinced the lion would soon be in range. But, as day turned to night, Lanting’s plan changed. He attached a strobe light to his camera and then, finally, the lion came to check things out. He exposed the image and could see the piercing eyes of the lion through the lens surrounded by a brushy sea of darkness. “The lion’s eyes are lit by my strobe. But I did it in such a subtle way that only the eyes are illuminated. The rest of the lion is still covered by twilight.”

FIELD KNOWLEDGE

These expeditions start with months of careful planning by his team. They study the best times to travel to a destination, the logistics of getting there, research his subject matter and map out where to camp in the wild. His team does all of this out of Lanting’s Santa Cruz gallery, making storyboards and sketches before the shoot. Then they’re off. “We move whole expedition groups for these projects. We live in tents. We have people who maintain camp. Sometimes these expeditions take weeks, sometimes months. We spend as long as it takes for the magic to happen.”

It took one cold month in Antarctica for Lanting to get his images. The team landed a small plane right on the sea ice where they set up camp with the penguins. The tuxedoed animals were the only signs of life on the continent. Temperatures dipped down to 40 degrees below zero most nights. They didn’t have heat, just layer upon layer of clothing. They had planned for that, but hadn’t expected the landscape to be so gorgeous – giant glaciers with an array of indescribably beautiful blue hues. The blues are caused by ice compressing over time at the bottom of an ice field or glacier. The air is squeezed out and light has a harder time penetrating through the ice. The fluted shapes are from the constant weathering effects of wind and rain. And, as Lanting describes, these mounds of ice are huge. “You are looking at about one percent of the total iceberg here – 90 percent is underwater. I wanted to show the scale by these little penguins that are perched on the edge of it.”

Lanting’s images are also a mix of good fortune and his own creativity. In Machu Picchu, Peru, he had set up his tripod and was looking down at the old city encircled by mountains. As he stared through his camera lens it was an image he’d seen a thousand times. He’d spent just a few minutes trying to come up with a different perspective when, out of nowhere, it simply walked right in front of him. “I wanted the shot of Machu Picchu because it’s such an icon of South America and this was one of those fortuitous moments. A llama, another icon of South America, just walked right in and now you’ve got the perfect juxtaposition between the two elements.”

The perfect example of how Lanting conceptualizes his photography came in Botswana. “I visualize something and then I’ve got to figure out how to do it.” In this case, his subject was water lilies. They’d almost always been photographed from the top down. Frans wanted the side view. That meant free diving in ten feet of crocodile infested water and hoping for cooperation from the sun. “I waited till midday because that’s when the light is best. I got the petals backlit and that’s what makes the lilies look like they’re really reaching up to the light.”

LIFE: A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME

In 2006, Lanting assembled his most ambitious project to date, a seven-year epic interpreting the history of life on Earth from its earliest beginnings to its present diversity. From prehistoric trilobites, delicate jellies and spiny octopus trees to erupting volcanoes, undersea reefs and steaming jungles – it was a study of nature at its core and its extremes. Lanting’s journey served as a testament to the magical beauty and enduring miracle of our living planet. “I wanted to apply both new scientific ideas to my subjects and state-of-the-art photographic technology to my images,” Lanting says. Using scientific data about Earth’s evolution, Lanting’s search led him from microscopic worlds to primordial landscapes where life’s history has been preserved. The corresponding photography inspires, informs and celebrates the amazing biodiversity that surrounds us all.

Life: A Journey Through Time was not just a photo essay; it was a multimedia extravaganza merging art and science, photography and music. The result – hundreds of Lanting’s gripping images set to music during a live, full-orchestra ensemble. Internationally renowned composer Philip Glass wrote the score. Conductor Marin Alsop ushered in the world premiere of Life at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz in the Summer of 2006 before traveling to Baltimore and a performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007.

In addition to the musical, the National Museum of Natural History in the Netherlands kicked off a photographic exhibition that then toured through Europe and around the world. A coffee table book and educational website, lifethroughtime.com, brought Life through Lanting’s lens to the masses.

ANIMAL/ART MISSION

Collections of Frans Lanting’s work have been exhibited at major museums in Paris, Milan, Tokyo, New York, and Amsterdam. His award-winning images have also appeared in every major nature magazine. In 1999, his photographic odyssey to assess global biodiversity became the longest story published by National Geographic in the magazine’s 110-year history. His commissioned assignments have included the search for the last white rhinos in central Africa and pygmy chimpanzees in the rain forest of the Congo basin. During his groundbreaking work in Madagascar in 1985, he photographed a species of lemur that hadn’t even been named yet. That series led to a book and global awareness about the depletion of Madagascar’s natural environment. Tourists began flocking to the country and conservation groups from around the world heeded the call. Things began turning around for the Malagasy government. Today, it spends several million dollars a year to preserve its parks and reserves – before Frans’ piece it spent less than a thousand dollars.

Lanting received knighthood from his native country – The Netherlands – for his work in world conservation through his photography. While he takes pictures of earthly paradises, he worries about develop-driven destruction. Just like the efforts he spearheaded in Madagascar, he feels a global solution to environmental problems is awareness. “There’s such pressure on the last remaining wilderness areas, especially where wildlife moves unfettered. That’s the hardest thing – to leave enough space for herds of large animals which can be destructive to people who live in the area. We’d have a hard time living with 50,000 elephants in California, don’t you think? Would we tolerate 10,000 hippos in the Central Valley? Would we still be able to live with bears and wolves? These are serious issues in other parts of the world.”

Lanting’s mission is to shed light on places that need to be more well known. For example, Peru should be as visible and as appreciated as Yellowstone or Yosemite. “Parts in Africa, Asia, and South America need to be seen as part of a global heritage and that means people in the developed countries need to contribute to these areas. If people know they exist and why they exist, if they have a profile, then the regions will be more likely to get the support and protection they need.”

Frans Lanting has taken lasting images of some extraordinary places. His expeditions have taken him to the ends of the earth. Lanting is a risk taker by trade and a crusader for preservation at heart. What keeps him going is coming home to Santa Cruz. He spends a lot of time looking out over the Pacific wondering about evolution – hoping future generations will have the same privilege of seeing the world the way he’s seen it.

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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