King of the Beasts
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 8×10 to $3,975 for a 20×90-inch panorama. The most popular is 20×30 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.
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 6×17 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.
This business model is called total vertical integration. It’s one of today’s hottest retail strategies. That’s because vertical integration is the ideal way to sell luxury goods, says art and luxury goods marketing expert Ketty Maisonrouge, adjunct professor at Columbia Business School in New York. Luxury goods are what Mangelsen really sells, she adds.
Luxury products — such as costly nature photos — don’t fulfill a need, but rather, “help create a beautiful dream world and make people feel better about themselves,” notes Maisonrouge.
Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Ferragamo, and Chanel are other brands doing precisely what Mangelsen does, with their own stores, or stores within stores. Not only does this approach give them complete control of their exalted brand images, but it’s a powerful bottom-line profit-builder. “The advantage of the vertically integrated model is this: You set your price and no one can do anything about it,” says Maisonrouge.
“There’s no middleman,” says one Mangelsen competitor, photographer Rodney Lough, whose four-gallery chain is also self-contained. “We’re our own middleman. We get 100 percent of the sale price of each picture, less the true cost of goods sold. That’s how we can afford the expensive rents,” in the Mall of America and San Francisco’s popular Pier 39, he adds.
Although Mangelsen’s customers come from all social strata and from all over the U.S., the company’s key demographic — 35 to 65 years old, 53 percent female, average household income $100,000-plus — is a “typical discretionary-goods profile,” says Henricksen. They’re also largely easterners, hungry for the magic of the west. “Our largest market outside of a gallery location, in terms of numbers of customers, is Atlanta.”
Large-format landscape photo-grapher David Brookover also sees a tremendous hunger in the east for photos of the west. “Sixty percent of my business is east of the Mississippi,” says Brookover, whose gallery sits below Mangelsen’s Jackson office and across from the Images of Nature gallery. Many of Brookover’s customers are wealthy financial professionals who say they can’t find anything like his work where they’re from.
Eastern expansion is important to Mangelsen — and it’s in the works. The most recent store opening, in May 2005, in Chicago suburb Oak Brook, IL, is the easternmost by far. As for adding more, Mangelsen, who insists that he cares more about artistry and promoting conservation than how many outlets he has, isn’t so sure. It costs a minimum of $400,000 to open a new store. But, says Henricksen, “You have to grow or you die.”
And let others sell his work? Nope. “Tom doesn’t want to exploit his work in a mass-market setting,” Henricksen says. The company rejected the idea of selling via cable television shopping channels, the way painter/entrepreneur Thomas Kinkade does.
And what about the day when Mangelsenhangs up his Nikons? No worry, says Henricksen. He isn’t likely to stop shooting anytime soon. (In fact, Mangelsen set off for China not long after our interview, and then it was on to Alaska.) And besides, he has 300,000 unpublished transparencies waiting to see the light of day.
Asked what keeps him going, the photographer says his goal is to make images that “touch people’s hearts, that are exciting, make people say, ‘I wish I could’ve been there.'”
He pauses. “Or to get images that make people say, ‘I was there, and I didn’t get that shot!'”
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 30×50-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.”