Thomas D. Mangelsen rules a nature photography empire that brings in nearly
$11 million a year.
Thomas D. Mangelsen's photo gallery in Jackson, WY, has a calm, refined atmosphere. Soft music plays. You could perch on a comfy couch for hours, it seems, without being pestered by sales staff. Each framed photograph carries an explanatory blurb, its tone educational. In one of the west's most classic -- and classiest -- tourist destinations, the gallery communicates a clear "You are special" marketing message.
Visitors who feel uplifted by their appreciation of fine photographic art and by the images of noble beasts in the unspoiled wilderness are getting that message. A tourist lingering there might reasonably feel more, say, discerning than the guy in the tacky T-shirt/gooey candy store down the street. And, of course, a person who buys a photographic print is entitled to feel extra special.
Countless people must have that extra-special feeling, because they're buying Mangelsen's prints at a rate of more than 10,000 a year.
Mangelsen is one of America's most successful nature photographers, thanks to this unusual approach to a photographic career. He runs a chain of 16 posh Images of Nature galleries that sell limited-edition prints of his -- and only his -- wildlife photography. And that business is supported by a glossy mail-order catalog and retail website. His company grosses nearly $11 million annually, and Mangelsen personally owns 100 percent of the profitable company, according to its president, Dana Henricksen.
No other American photographer has come near his long-running success with multiple photo galleries in high-profile, high-traffic locations.
Competitors have taken notice, however. Large-format nature photo-grapher Rodney Lough, Jr. recently opened his fourth gallery, in the high-traffic Mall of America. (He's planning to have 10 stores eventually.) Clyde Butcher and Peter Lik, other well-known nature/landscape photographers, have two high-profile galleries each.
But Mangelsen is the undisputed king of the nature-photography gallery business. And he's had a critical mass of about 10 running successfully since the early 1990s. Like the one in Jackson, they're mainly in upscale western towns such as La Jolla, CA, and Park City, UT. None are east of Chicago.
Prices for framed prints range from $115 for an 8x10 to $3,975 for a 20x90-inch panorama. The most popular is 20x30 inches, selling for $575 mounted and framed or $425 loose, says longtime store manager Dan Fulton.
Some 95 percent of his prints are sold framed, according to Henricksen. And prints make up 75 percent of all sales; the rest comes from books, cards and posters, and other items, all drawn from Mangelsen's photography. He also has a stock agency.
What gets people to leave behind hundreds or thousands of dollars for a personally signed wildlife photo from a not-so-limited edition of 3,500?
In person, 61-year-old Tom Mangelsen is extremely low-key, soft-spoken, even taciturn. He's been shooting, promoting, and selling his work for three decades. It takes up most of his time: six to nine months a year shooting, and another two months visiting each gallery, he says. Plus he inspects and signs each of the 10,000-plus prints sold each year. He had a stack of prints awaiting his signature when Pop Photo interviewed him in his small office in Jackson.