Thomas D. Mangelsen rules a nature photography empire that brings in nearly
$11 million a year.
In the mid-1970s, Mangelsen started with (unstaffed) airport kiosks, and later a 300-square-foot upstairs gallery in Jackson (the same space that's now his office). The success of that little upstairs gallery led to a street-level store in Park City in 1982. Fueled by sales to the ski crowds, he had a viable business and opened two more: one in La Jolla and a ground-level store in Jackson. From that base he opened an average of one gallery per year. Profitability took another 10 years, he notes.
Mangelsen's photography has that most vaunted of marketing advantages, a clear point of differentiation: He specializes in wildlife in their natural surroundings. Landscape-centric nature photography is much more common in the art fair and gallery world -- and certainly his landscapes sell well, too.
His most successful photo ever -- he says it's earned more than $2.5 million -- is the startling shot of an Alaskan brown bear nabbing a spawning salmon that serves as this article's opener. This shot is so dead-on that Mangelsen has been accused of digital fakery. But it was hard-won by previsualization and much waiting. He says he never manipulates his photos digitally beyond standard darkroom-type controls.
Mangelsen uses three Nikon DSLR models (D2x, D2xs, and D200) with a number of zoom lenses covering focal lengths from 12mm to 400mm, as well as a 600mm prime, and 1.4 and 1.7 teleconverters. He still shoots some 35mm film with a Nikon F6. "I'd prefer to have everything on Velvia," he sighs.
Fujichrome Velvia still rules, though, in his increasingly popular panoramic work made with his Fujifilm GX 6x17 medium-format specialty camera and 90mm to 300mm lenses.
He may be an artist who is most often out in the wild, but Mangelsen is also a serious businessman with an up-to-date marketing approach that can be summed up in one word: control.
Thomas D. Mangelsen, Inc. (Images of Nature's parent company, based in Omaha, NE) is a nearly self-contained operation, from design and manufacturing straight through to retail sale. That's unusual, for either a photographer or a retailer.
The company fabricates the framed, finished final prints at headquarters with a staff of 15, including two full-time frame joiners and one full-time frame cutter, says Henricksen, the president. It even publishes its own books.
Mangelsen does outsource the actual photographic printing, though, mostly digital/photochemical hybrid processes, to two labs in Arizona. "Printing requires a substantial commitment in equipment and expertise," Henricksen says. "We leave that to the professionals." It would be prohibitively costly to make those investments given the company's relatively small size, he adds.
The company then sells these framed prints only through its own outlets: The 16 Images of Nature galleries, website, and 280,000 direct-mail catalogs yearly. (Two of the stores, in Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs, CO, are partnerships with other owners; the other 14 are fully owned, and plans don't include more partnerships, Mangelsen says.) You cannot buy a Thomas D. Mangelsen print anywhere else, except in the secondary market.