Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Wild creatures have a way of cooperating when Thomas Mangelsen picks up a camera.
Mangelsen is a prolific wildlife photographer who made American Photographer magazine's list of the top 100 most important people in photography in 2005. He followed up with more recognition from the magazine, for best nature image of the year in 2007 and an honorable mention in 2008.
Mangelsen will greet the public during a reception from 5 to 9 p.m. today at Images of Nature gallery, at 730 Lincoln Ave. Visitors will discover that his enthusiasm for sharing anecdotes behind a particular image only is surpassed by his perseverance in capturing them.
Evidence of Mangelsen's persistence can be seen tonight just to the left of the gallery's fireplace mantle, where an enlargement of the wintry Yampa River enjoys a prominent wall.
It's a beautiful winter scene of snow-covered rocks and soft willows, and two pairs of mallards that swam into the perfect spot for the shot.
"The hardest thing for me is capturing wild animals in their landscape," Mangelsen said Friday. "But it's the little details that give me joy."
In the case of the color photograph of the Yampa River, Mangelsen stood on the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat waiting for the ducks to swim into a snowy indentation in the river bank, where they completed the composition.
It's in some ways easier, Mangelsen said, to capture a tight portrait of a large animal than it is to photograph the same elk or bear in a bigger landscape. In the latter case, the photographer must depend on the animal to wander into just the right location to complete a balanced scene.
Mangelsen often pre-visualizes the image he hopes to make, then returns to the scene over and over again until it comes together. "You have to dream a lot," he said. "'What if?' becomes 'Please let this happen.' If you will it and wish it, for all the right reasons," it just might happen.
Mangelsen also can fall back on the years of knowledge that comes from observing wildlife.
"I find myself asking, 'Where do you think the animal is going to go after it finishes doing what it's doing?'"
In the case of the ducks in the Yampa River, Mangelsen walked back and forth on the bridge, shooting hundreds of frames to test his compositions while the ducks snoozed on the rocks. Finally, they swam upstream and perfectly spaced themselves where the photographer envisioned them.
It was a different kind of bird that added the critical detail in a scene of a large red shed on a ranch in the Elk River Valley.
"I noticed the barn, and then I saw an owl in the window. At first, I thought it was a decoy," Mangelsen said.
Then, the plastic decoy moved slightly.
"Stupidly, I slammed on the brakes and backed up," Mangelsen said. "That violates wildlife photography 101."
The large bird retreated to the interior of the shed.
Mangelsen and his friend, Jack, drove up the road and spent a half hour shooting the breeze while they waited for the bird to settle down. When they returned to the scene, the owl was no longer in sight. But a pair of high-powered binoculars revealed its shadowy figure inside the building. They proceeded to drive back and forth five times, until Mangelsen scored some shots of the bird in full sunlight before it flew away.
The stakeout continued until soft snowflakes lent a painterly quality to the atmosphere and softened the light.
Finally, the solemn bird returned to the shed, and the final image was made.
Through perseverance, the photographer captured a photograph that has sold widely in Mangelsen galleries scattered across the West and Midwest.
He said he benefited from a little bit of good fortune in the case of the owl in the red shed. But it's a myth that luck follows photographers of Mangelsen's stature. It's about countless hours devoted to keen observation of wildlife behavior and a willingness to sweat the details.
"The minute you think you can will those things to happen, you're getting carried away with yourself," Mangelsen said.
- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail email@example.com