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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Big Story


Famous for his near-specialization of difficult African assignments for National Geographic, Michael Nichols continues to deliver the excitement of photographic discovery, always testing the limits of his equipment and technique

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If the essence of National Geographic Magazine could be limited to one word, it would be discovery. Michael "Nick" Nichols is one of the last of the big-assignment photographers at the Geographic. It would be easy to assume that much of Nichols' success can be attributed to the deep pockets of the magazine, but rather the magazine has been indulgent because Nichols has distinguished himself as hardworking, undeterred, personal-health-sacrificing, laser-focused and bankable.

The new challenges of Africa have made Nichols search farther and harder. He's one of the most ardent users (and pioneers) of new photo-related technologies, beginning with portable flash and camera traps, and more recently, the most light-sensitive cameras and night-penetrating infrared.

We had a chance to sit down with Nichols after his speaking engagement at The Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Wherever he goes, he's capable of filling a room with a rapt audience that has a special appreciation for his big-story contributions. With an affable Alabama accent, a penchant for candor and introspection curiously combined with a flare for hyperbole and a Twain-like gift for storytelling in pictures and words, he's endlessly entertaining.

OP: Few photographers have had the depth of experience that you've had in Africa. You've literally pioneered the darkest regions where few or no photographers have gone before, while to most photographers and tourists, Africa is a place of guided game drives and luxury camps. It's interesting to contrast the photo experience of the deep jungle of undeveloped countries with the game park savannas of East Africa. The former is all about nature in the raw, sheer exploration, battling to just acquire something publishable. The latter offers the predictability of a day in the world's most populated wildlife studios where patience and hard work are required, but the fruits are easier to pick.

Michael "Nick" Nichols: In all my years in the jungles of Central and West Africa, chasing chimpanzees and gorillas, I was just trying to get something on film with no ability to see results until it was too late to make adjustments. So many people credited me with being surreal and creative. In truth, that was the only way I could shoot—blurred animals, wildlife obscured by the forest, fleeting glimpses, glowing eyes reflecting strobe light. Everything was dark and mysterious. I'm not saying that the technique wasn't conscious, but I was also just capitalizing on the conditions at hand and making a positive out of the limitations of cameras and film.

OP: There was a time when you would have told me that you were only interested in assignments to places that were undiscovered by photographers, only interested in breaking new ground like the Ndoki (Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo).

Nichols: More recently, I have made a conscious decision to get out of those jungles because I had done enough. I couldn't continue to chase the impossible, things you couldn't see. But I wouldn't give up the experience for anything—the camera traps, the surprises that come out of it. All that made me so prepared; it makes the savanna seem like a cakewalk, and I don't mean that to be derogatory of anything or anyone else. When I switched to working out of cars and I found those elephants that I knew I could get close to [Chad] or the baboons project that came between [Gelada baboons, Ethiopia], it was a conscious decision by the editors [National Geographic] to get me out of the jungle. It was an intervention. "He's got to shoot with a camera in his hand [versus remote traps], be able to think about what he's doing. So the process led me to the Chad elephants, but Chad turned out to be impossible, too. I wouldn't want to classify that as a game park experience because everything [wildlife] was so shot to hell, so edgy and scared. In the savanna of Kenya and Tanzania that you refer to, we're really talking about animals that are protected and totally comfortable with human presence.

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