Focus on the Story: Wild for photographer’s amazing life

Melissa Harris is the author of ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>”A Wild Life,” a new photography book about renowned wildlife photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols, due June 6.

The book charts Alabama-born Nichols’ development of his environmental calling, and the great adventure photo-stories of his life. Those came first for GEO and Rolling Stone, and then National Geographic in recent decades.

Harris, herself a distinguished art photography editor, interviewed hundreds of people. She traveled with Nichols to Africa and Yellowstone, and to more relevant sites on her own for research.

The book includes more than 120 wildlife photos by Nichols, from the Congo Basin to Sequoia National Park.

Here, Harris answers a few questions about “A Wild Life” and its hero.

What drew you to working on “A Wild Life” with Nick?

I believe in Nick as a passionate photojournalist covering critical stories, bearing witness and giving voice. Knowing him for so long, I knew that he had an extraordinary life story and that he’s a superb storyteller. And I admire Nick’s ethics as a journalist in the wild. His respect for his subjects, and commitment to leaving no trace of his presence, no footprint, etc.

Mountain gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, 1995; from “A Wild Life” (Aperture, 2017)

The fact that his stories engage extraordinary protagonists – a pride of lionesses, an elephant matriarch, conservation scientists like Jane Goodall and Mike Fay… Well, that made it all the more interesting. How could I resist? Nick thinks he baited me into doing it, but I think I baited him.

You did a lot of reporting and travel with Nick, and on your own. Why was that important for a photography book?

I wanted to see Nick at work in the field – how he moved, his instincts, his responses. I also knew interviewing him on site would inspire more anecdotes and memories.

Jane Goodall chimpanzee

Jane Goodall and the chimpanzee Gregoire, Brazzaville Zoo, 1995; from “A Wild Life” (Aperture, 2017)

I hoped I’d be able to write more evocatively if I knew what the musk of a mountain gorilla smells like. If I knew the feel of a baby elephant’s warm breath. Or the sound of a lion’s roar across the Serengeti … if all my senses were on high alert. I’d know this firsthand if I went on a tanzania safari and saw these magnificent animals up close.

There was Nick’s life story, the stories he was doing for magazines, and then the stories behind the stories. There was Nick, the charismatic animal. And then the individual great apes, big cats, elephants, and tall trees he focused on – not to mention the conservationists. There were a lot of layers and perspectives, and my job was to weave them together.

So how can a writer help a photographer to do that, to shape the story?

We discussed everything and anything with total candor and mutual trust. He knew that I wanted to do this biography as a way to address many of the issues dear to him, and he was all for that. In some ways, I think it took the weight off it being all about him. He sees himself as simply another protagonist. Obviously, he’s the heart and soul of the book. But his universe is vast and inclusive.

Coastal redwood, Prairie
Creek Redwoods State Park, 2009. Photographed by Nichols, composited by Ken Geiger; from “A Wild Life” (Aperture, 2017)

What should readers of this book get from it? A look at beautiful wildlife photos? A life story of an amazing photographer?

That’s hard to answer. I’m not really comfortable with saying what readers should get out of it. For sure, the captivating photos and the extraordinary life story. But I hope also that they consider the fragility of all wildlife and the wild, that when we don’t take care of the planet, we don’t take care of ourselves. We’re all in this together.

What can a beginning or aspiring photographer learn from Nick? What about experienced pros or amateurs?

How to work ethically, with integrity. That there is value in long-term, character-driven storytelling, rather than a sound-bite, hit-and-run approach. That a conventionally pretty photograph is not nearly as compelling as one with some edge and energy.

Technical advances and gadgetry are only facilitators. They’re not the vision, not the voice. That’s what gives the images power and distinguishes a particular sensibility.

Photography can still represent a social conscience. It can stand up for an ideal, advocate and challenge. Preconceptions are rarely useful. So recognize your baggage going in, and then be open to what happens.

Melissa Harris is editor-at-large of Aperture Foundation. She has worked there more than 25 years, including as editor-in-chief of Aperture magazine. This interview was first published on Focus on the Story. The photography site celebrates storytellers and their art from around the world.

BUY THE BOOK HERE: “A Wild Life” on Amazon.