Winter Narratives

Tom Mangelsen’s approach to wildlife photography leads viewers to deeper stories
Freeze up on the Yellowstone by Tom Mangelsen

Freeze up on the Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, 1993. As winter slowly freezes the high waterways of the Rocky Mountains, trumpeter swans begin to congregate on the few remaining open ponds in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Hours before dawn on a brutal winter morning in northwest Wyoming, with the wind chill factor hitting minus 30 degrees, Tom Mangelsen receives a text message informing him that a bobcat is prowling the icy flanks of the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

Normally, he could get there within 90 minutes by car from his home, but the highways in America’s national park are closed in winter, enabling only over-snow machines to reach the interior.

Distinguished for his portfolio of avian and mammal images amassed over four decades while spanning the globe from top to bottom, Mangelsen acknowledges Lynx rufus has proved elusive in inhabiting his viewfinder. “I have lynx images but had no images of bobcats,” he says.

A traditionalist, Mangelsen is a stubborn stickler who refuses to take shortcuts. Even today, at 70, he has never frequented a commercial animal game farm where proprietors rent out captive, hard-to-photograph species at hourly rates. He’s been an outspoken critic of contemporaries who do it. He could have had full-framed bobcat portraits years ago by hiring animal models, but he’s preferred to remain patient, waiting to encounter one of the stealthy felines at closer range in the wild—just as he did for tigers in India and pumas in South America.

Now, as a snowstorm barrels into Jackson Hole, a whiteout obscures the loom of the Tetons ordinarily visible through the picture window in his rustic cabin near the village of Moose. Mangelsen and photographer friend Sue Cedarholm hastily make plans to rendezvous with a snowcoach driver on the west side of Yellowstone who will ferry them to the vicinity where the bobcat was last spotted.

Ermine and aspens by Tom Mangelsen

Ermine and Aspens, Grand Teton National Park, 1993. An ermine stands among aspens in the snow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

“In winter,” Mangelsen says, “the rules of engagement change.” Nothing is easy or comfortable about being a nature photographer in the frozen maw of Greater Yellowstone, but the dividends for those willing to confront adversity are many, he says.

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Mangelsen is a veteran of both the Great White North and South. One of his panoramic pictures, “Born of the North Wind”, taken of a polar bear on sea ice near Hudson Bay, won the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. American Photo magazine counted him as one of the 100 most important people in photography, he’s a charter member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and he has had images exhibited in major museums and published in National Geographic. Last November, Mangelsen and close friends Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting were leading a photography tour in the Falklands and South Georgia. The list of those who collect Mangelsen’s work extends to all seven continents.

The selection of images here lends insight into Mangelsen’s love affair with stark winter environments. Like landscape painters who enjoy the illusory challenge of overcoming monochromatic perception, Mangelsen savors the subtle—and often, not-so-subtle—contrasts, the zones of value, that rule in winter when photosynthetic-driven color has gone into hibernation. Shapes, forms and mass contrasted against negative space; this drives composition more than in any other season, he says.

“Beyond the obvious aesthetic appeal and the life-and-death struggles, I am always thinking about the narrative aspects. How and why did the animal get to the place where I am intersecting with its life? How can a photograph become a take-off point for the viewer to consider a deeper story?” he asks.

Whether it’s a painting or a sculpture, great fine art presents fresh opportunities for others to set out on their own wander. “I have always believed that great photography does exactly the same thing as other fine art media,” he says.

The Harvest, Bohemian Waxwing by Tom Mangelsen

The Harvest, Bohemian Waxwing, Jackson Hole, 1999. A Bohemian waxwing perches on a crab apple tree branch devouring the rich fruit of the tree in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

After a moment of contemplation, he adds, “I like visual storytelling that is open-ended, that doesn’t tell you what to think, but triggers an emotional feeling or maybe arouses your intellectual curiosity. It puts you in the space with an animal, without disrupting it, and allows you to think about not only what’s happening inside the frame but all of the other stuff happening just beyond where your eyes are taking you,” he says.

In “Freeze up on the Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, 1993”, it’s Mangelsen, “the painterly photographer” who tips his hat to abstract expressionism. Here, a mantle of ice on the Yellowstone River serves as his canvas. Every winter, trumpeter swans seek out the river’s open water, warmed by hot springs bubbling to the surface. Occasionally, the great angelic birds are targeted by coyotes and bobcats roaming the river corridor.

When Mangelsen reflects on this piece, he thinks of the late Bob Kuhn, considered the best mammal painter in the world over the last 30 years. Kuhn and Mangelsen spoke a lot about how moods emanate from banded color. Kuhn, he notes, was inspired by the vast color field paintings of abstract-expressionist Mark Rothko. “In nature, you don’t have to invent; it’s there for the seeing, for the composing in your mind and then translating it through a lens,” Mangelsen notes. “But before you can hold it in your mind and capture it in a camera, you have to be aware of how the elements come together.”

Kuhn used several Mangelsen photographs as reference material for dramatic paintings, some today that hang in museums. Corroboration of his appreciation can be found in framed animal drawings on Mangelsen’s wall bearing notes of gratitude to the photographer in the margins. Mangelsen was friendly not only with Kuhn but still has a friendship with noted Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman, hailed for his portrayals of wildlife in soft light conditions where muted subjects appear almost like gossamers.

Just as Kuhn and Bateman exercised their creativity by drawing, Mangelsen sketches in his own way, heading out into the elements merely to absorb, allowing him to more freely open his mind’s eye. The paradox of being skilled at spontaneously chronicling “perfect moments,” he says, is the advance work he does by pre-visualizing different scenes so that he’s ready for them.

Wind River Bighorns by Tom Mangelsen

Wind River Bighorns, Wind River Range, 2009. Four bighorn sheep are found along Torrey Creek, where grass and protection can be found as winter descends on the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

Sometimes, he doesn’t have to travel far to find wild nature. With “Ermine and Aspens, Grand Teton National Park, 1993”, Mangelsen makes art out of a scene that played out just beyond his living room. “For years I’ve had a woodpile in back of my house where Uinta ground squirrels sometimes hole up and hibernate,” Mangelsen says. “Often, long- and short-tailed weasels show up and prey on the snoozing squirrels or mice and voles—sort of like going out to the freezer and pulling out a tasty, fury popsicle.”

Mangelsen loves the curvilinear, “sculptural” qualities of members of the weasel family. On one memorably frigid and bright afternoon, an ermine made a kill and was slinking away toward a tunnel. It stopped in a patch of aspens. Between the white fur of the ermine set against white snow, the structure of the tree trunks and the sun shadows being cast by the branches, it provided the opportunity for an interesting composition, he says.

From November until the end of March, normal color turns transient. “What I love about winter is when you get those reddish-vermillion hues that wash across the crystalline snow with the sunlight at dawn and during sunsets. But sometimes, beneath overcast skies, the light becomes flat and you’re looking for things that provide an accent. That’s what I found in this picture.” Mangelsen is speaking of “The Harvest, Bohemian Waxwing, Jackson Hole, 1999.”

“They’re one of my favorite wintering birds of the Northern Rockies for sure,” he explains. “You can hear their flocks from a long distance away, and they’ll come in and swarm mountain ash and fruit trees, eating the berries like bees going after nectar.” He has seen Bohemian waxwings become inebriated on fermenting berries hanging from the trees and the birds dropping to the ground drunk. “What makes this picture work is the shallow focus.”

Mangelsen has plenty of full-framed headshots in his opus. But with “Wind River Bighorns, Wind River Range, 2009”, Mangelsen was searching to portray an entire band of rugged bighorns wintering near Whiskey Mountain outside of Dubois, Wyoming. “My first instincts were to make it a horizontal, tighter shot; but as a vertical, with the number of sheep mirrored by the trees in the background, it functions like a family portrait.”

Song Dogs by Tom Mangelsen

Song Dogs, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, 2006. A pair of coyotes responds to the calls of their kin in the open spaces of the Lamar Valley.

Every year, he makes pilgrimages to Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, a dell described as an “American Serengeti” because of the diversity of megafauna—wolves, bears, elk, bison, moose, deer and pronghorn—that converge there. He reserves a special place in his heart for the underdogs, coyotes, which have taken a beating with the reintroduction of wolves.

In “Song Dogs, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, 2006” he tells the tale of wading through crotch-deep snow in February, spending hours watching a pair of coyotes hunting for voles near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. “It was late afternoon, and they had settled down to rest,” Mangelsen says. “All of a sudden, there was an eruption of yips emanating from their pack mates on a hillside. They returned howls. You never know when magic will happen. What I like about the composition is the log jam of downed cottonwoods and aspen yielding interesting patterns.”

Mangelsen is synonymous with bear photography. His image “Catch of the Day,” which captures the precise moment a spawning Alaskan salmon is leaping into the jaws of a hungry brown bear, is the most widely known in his opus, viewed by millions around the world. During the past year, Mangelsen has received national acclaim for 150 pictures in his award-winning book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, which tells the harrowing story of the most famous living bear in the world, Grizzly 399, a 21-year-old who makes her home in Jackson Hole. Mangelsen has been trailing 399 and different broods of cubs for a full decade.

Mountain Outlaw by Tom Mangelsen

Mountain Outlaw, Yellowstone National Park, 2014. A large male grizzly walks through the deep snow of early spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Besides his work with 399, another impactful image is “Mountain Outlaw, Yellowstone National Park, 2014,” executed using visual illusion. Along the Yellowstone River in the vicinity of LeHardy Rapids, bison carcasses often stack up in winter after the giant behemoths fall through the river ice and drown. The smorgasbord of meat attracts scavengers, including hungry grizzlies emerging from their dens in March.

This hefty male grizzly, weighing more than 800 pounds, appears to be charging toward the viewer. In fact, he’s moving quickly toward a female bear located on the opposite side of the highway, where Mangelsen and others had been observing several bears courting the female.

Finally, there’s “Druids Testing Bison, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, 2008.” Mangelsen explains, “We had climbed to a high ridge in the Lamar Valley and were staking out a wolf pack that has generated worldwide headlines in recent years, the Druid Pack. They moved in and surrounded a lone bison, hassling it for a period of time but backing off because it wasn’t worth the risk of injury. Besides the body language of predators and prey, what caught my eye was the interplay of snowy highlight and bluish shadows.”

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During his younger years, Mangelsen was influenced by other photographers, but one of his greatest teachers is Old Man Winter. “To live on the edge of Grand Teton Park and to be able to take trips into Teton and Yellowstone parks on a daily basis is like being challenged to learn new things in a master photography class,” he says. “Winter is humbling. I am always learning new things about this instrument, the camera. The elements are constantly challenging me to come up with creative ways of making a better picture.”

Winter has been a platform for life, be it sea ice supporting the movements of polar bears hunting in the Arctic searching for seals and walrus, or rising water temperatures at the bottom of the world, affecting fish and other life that are vital staples for such species as penguins. In between the poles, he adds, winters are shrinking, at rates of speed that should normally be almost indiscernible.

Druids Testing Bison by Tom Mangelsen

Druids Testing Bison, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, 2008. Druid wolf pack tests a bull bison on a snowy hillside in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Here his voice begins to crack. He thinks of how winters have become more erratic in Greater Yellowstone; the bookends that used to be wider have shortened with climate change. Animal behavior is shifting. The outlook for species like wolverines, Canada lynx and pikas, scientists say, is bleak.

Mangelsen’s photographs are a visual diary, the notes he keeps to document his forays. He’s seen the changes at the Platte River in his native Nebraska, where annually for the last decade and a half he’s rendezvoused with famed primatologist Jane Goodall to watch the epic massing of sandhill cranes and other waterfowl.

“It used to be the main massing of sandhills didn’t happen until the third week of March; now they stage at the beginning of the month,” he says. “The world is changing before our eyes. We photographers are out there bearing witness and calling attention. We need to wake up. But will it be soon enough?”

Todd Wilkinson has been an environmental journalist and art writer for more than 30 years. Making his home in Bozeman, Montana, he is author of several books. His stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines ranging from The Washington Post to National Geographic and dozens of others in between.

See more of Tom Mangelsen’s work at