Thomas D. Mangelsen rules a nature photography empire that brings in nearly
$11 million a year.
Are nearly 100 Thomas D. Mangelsen animal photos hanging in your house overkill? Not to Karen and Dick Hobbins. The walls of their Jackson, WY-area home are covered with Mangelsen's photos -- they lost count of them at 80.
Karen Hobbins' love for Mangelsen's work goes way back. In 1978, prints displayed at his kiosk at Chicago's O'Hare airport caught her eye. Then, while visiting Jackson (the couple lived in Idaho), she stopped by his first Images of Nature gallery and bought two pieces. She hasn't stopped since.
His work "inspires and amazes me," she says. "With all the human encroachment everywhere, I love seeing that these critters still go on... Tom Mangelsen has a knack for capturing animals at real moments."
Of the Hobbins' collection, "Bad Boys of the Arctic" (top left), has pride of place. A 30x50-inch print hangs above their living-room mantel.
"We see ourselves in that," Karen Hobbins says. (The two are "mostly retired," she from a career in wine sales and her Ph.D. husband from one in nuclear science.) "When we were commuting, we'd come home at the end of a long week, look at that shot, relate to it, and say, 'Phew, we made it.' We'd get a glass of wine and think, 'That bear looks like all he needs is a can of Coors and a remote!'"
An ardent conservationist who hopes to inspire people to help preserve nature, Tom Mangelsen thinks the welfare of the animals he photographs and the truthfulness of the pictures he takes are much more important than his own convenience and comfort.
That's why his air of imperturbability falls away when he speaks about game farms, which bring captive animals to photographers. Mangelsen says that species that don't belong together, such as snow leopards, cougars, and coyotes, are caged and loaded onto a truck, then released within fenced compounds to get them closer to cameras. Sometimes they're kept within boundaries using piano-wire leashes. "In a week you can shoot every ****ing species," he steams.
Increasingly popular, game farms are "by far the worst thing to happen to nature photography," he says. "They're a lie. It is also unethical to cage animals for those reasons. Viewers... can't believe any nature photography anymore."
Mangelsen shoots only in the wild. In 1999 he spent 12 hours a day for 42 days straight photographing the first cougar spotted in 55 years in the Jackson Hole National Elk Refuge.
As she raised her kittens, he never got nearer than 120 yards. He used an 800mm lens, often with both 2X and 1.4X teleconverters. The photos still weren't very close up, "but I got enough for a small book, Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions of Jackson Hole." And he started a nonprofit, The Cougar Fund, to help protect the beasts.
Mangelsen can't help but contrast that experience with "some ***hole dropping a cougar from a cage into a beautiful setting." He says quietly, "That's pretty pathetic."
Born to Sell
How did Tom Mangelsen get to be such a smart businessman, as well as a leading nature photographer?
He grew up in a hunting-and-fishing-obsessed family in wildlife-rich Grand Island and Ogallala, NE. That's a great background for stalking animals with a long lens. But when the Mangelsens weren't out being gut-rugged Midwestern outdoor-types, they lived an urban, business-focused life.
Dad was a successful retailing entrepreneur. In 1961, when Tom Mangelsen was 15, his father, Harold, opened a five-and-dime in Omaha -- Nebraska's largest city, with a population of 300,000 at the time -- after 25 years of working at the state's first one.
Every member of the family -- father, mother, and four sons -- worked at their 12,000-square-foot family store. In fact, they slept there. "We lived at the store for a couple of years until Dad bought a house," deadpans younger brother David, who still owns the business.
He's not kidding: For two years, the family lived in improvised, rudimentary quarters in the store's back room, without even a kitchen. "Mom would fix dinner at the 24-seat lunch counter. We could have burgers, malts, and fries. I played with toys at night, put them back, and sold them the next day," David Mangelsen recalls. "We got a good taste of retailing."