Cover Stories

The Meaning of ‘LIFE’

GT1534 coverWEBWith a new documentary film about his work, and huge exhibits on both coasts, acclaimed Santa Cruz nature photographer Frans Lanting is having a landmark year. But his crusade for conservation doesn’t leave much time for looking back

It’s not even 8 a.m., and the documentary film crew on Four Mile Beach just north of Santa Cruz has already been shooting for hours. Producer Joe Russo looks out 100 yards to some tide pools where camera, sound and other crew members are gathered around the man that his company, Arclight Productions, is here to make a film about: Santa Cruz nature photographer Frans Lanting.

“Look at this light we’re getting today,” says Russo, shaking his head in disbelief. He gestures toward Lanting. “He went and scouted this. He’s very thorough. He’s very involved.”

cov 1Eventually, everyone makes their way back down the winding tide pool path to the base camp on the beach.

“It’s tricky getting out there,” admits Chris Eckstrom, Lanting’s wife and professional partner. “Nobody did a faceplant, so that’s good.”

As director Steven Kochones plans the next scene—Lanting walking along the beach with Gary Griggs, director of UCSC’s Institute of Marine Sciences—it’s obvious how much he respects Lanting’s input. “Go as close to the tide line as possible,” Lanting suggests, as Kochones tells the camera department to load into the two ATVs parked in the sand.

“Frans has his vision, and Steve has his, and they work well together,” says line producer Daniel Sollinger. A few days before they shot in the redwoods, another location Lanting scouted.

“He found that redwood grove, and I don’t even know how to describe it,” says Sollinger. “It’s like you’re on another planet.”

As the crew troops toward the tide, Griggs looks up at the bright and cloudless late June sky, which glitters off the water and makes Four Mile Beach look entirely different than it had the day before when it was fogged in.

“Sorry about the weather,” he jokes. 

The only one on site who doesn’t seem ecstatic at this meteorological lucky break is Lanting, who shrugs, his trademark calm and serious voice always carrying a trace of his Dutch homeland. 

“Fog’s my friend, I love it. For photographers, it’s a dream,” he says. 

Then he cracks a smile. “But it’s nice to see a sunrise once in a while.”

‘LIFE’ GOES ON

The documentary on Lanting was commissioned by the Annenberg Space for Photography, the first solely photographic museum in Los Angeles. It will be shown as part of “LIFE,” an exhibition of the 64-year-old Lanting’s work opening Oct. 24.

cov 3It’s the continuation of a project that started out epic in scope—Lanting set out, more or less, to tell the history of life on Earth through photographs set to music—and has had the staying power to match. Debuting in 2006 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz as “Life: A Journey Through Time,” a touring version called “Frans Lanting: LIFE” kicked off in the Netherlands—where Lanting grew up and was educated before emigrating to this country—and then traveled through Europe and the U.S.

But there’s a mystique to the exhibit that goes beyond its success around the world—Lanting alters the exhibit each time he is asked to reconstitute it, mirroring the biological adaptation he documents in it. When “LIFE” was staged to inaugurate the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, Lanting worked with Swiss scientists to determine how the symphony could be modified to be more relevant to the debut of the enormous particle accelerator. “LIFE” also changed a little when it was done as part of a celebration of the World Wildlife Fund’s 50th anniversary, and again when it was part of the World Science Festival in New York. Lanting seizes every opportunity to make it relevant for new audiences.

But with this Annenberg version, he may have outdone himself. Not just because this is the first time the documentary will be paired with the exhibit—it was the Annenberg Foundation’s idea to do the film, after all. But again, Lanting seized an opportunity; this time, the chance to tell the geological and biological story of his adopted home of Santa Cruz. He was the one who found the locales and the experts like Griggs, all of which he knew would give audiences a clearer picture of the environmental challenges that Santa Cruz faces.

“For the Annenberg show, we’re adding a component that helps people understand how things are changing along the California coast,” Lanting says. “That’s why we went to the beach with Gary Griggs, who is able to interpret how the coastline is changing. That’s why we filmed in the redwoods, because they’re real monuments for the past, but also, what’s going to happen to them as the climate is changing very quickly here in California? They’re not too happy with the ongoing drought, but that’s just the beginning of things.”

Lanting hopes to underscore for the audience at Annenberg that “whether you’re in Santa Cruz or in Los Angeles, the redwoods and the California coastline speak to all of us, it’s part of our life.”

What should be clear by now is that Lanting doesn’t do “retrospectives,” in the traditional sense. There’s too much urgency in his view of the natural world, and his desire to do more than just document what he sees through his camera. That’s why he puts so much effort into every opportunity, even now that he’s one of the most famous nature photographers in the world.

“Our work is documentary in nature, but we really care about the mission behind it, which is to interpret the natural world, and why it’s relevant in this day and age. So we reach out to people—it’s not just about us, it’s really about the living planet that we all share,” he says. 

THE VIEW FROM EVERYWHERE

Still, there is something to be said for retrospectives, and for reflection. Lanting and Eckstrom get a double dose of it this year—as the Annenberg is set to relaunch “LIFE” on one coast, the Smithsonian has also opened “Into Africa,” an exhibit of Lanting’s work on that continent, on the other. It’s on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. until August 2016.

It does make Lanting think about how his understanding of the natural world has evolved through his photography.

“We’ve been really privileged to have worked on every continent, in many countries, and every experience puts the previous one and the next one in perspective,” he says.

Eckstrom feels the difference, too. “I know when we revisit places we haven’t been to in a long time, like when we went back to Botswana after many years, you do see it differently, because when you first were there it was so fresh and everything was all so new,” she says. “And now you come back, say, 20 years later with global experience and a new understanding you bring to bear on a place. I think I see it less naively, and with much more of a sense of how precious everything on the planet is.”

She sees that evolution reflected in her husband’s work.

“I think his images of the animals have always been very, very personal and intimate. That’s a hallmark of his work, and also setting the animals in their environment, so you’re seeing their point of view in the place that they inhabit,” she says. “I see Frans’ work become more cerebral and complex over time, with a lot more conceptual ideas worked in. The image may look deceptively clean and simple, but there’s a lot more going on inside. There are ever more layers of meaning in his work now than there were at the beginning.”

Indeed, Lanting made his reputation with striking portraits of wildlife that felt like staring into the face of a real lion or penguin or other animal. And while he will always be a master of this vivid style, both his subject matter and his technique have grown in nuance and context over the years.

But to Lanting, it all has come from the same place; his basic philosophy of photography has not changed.

“A lot of people get lost in the technology and think that the mystery is in the dials and the programs in the camera,” he says. “But when I teach photography, I flip it around and make people understand that it really starts with an internal dialogue. I help people create clarity in their own minds—what it is they’re looking at, and why they’re looking at it. And then the technical solutions often flow from there.”

NATURAL RESOURCE

Through his exhibitions and his work for National Geographic and other publications, especially after being named Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1991 in the coveted international competition overseen by the British Natural History Museum and BBC, countless people around the world have seen the natural world through Lanting’s eyes.

And as his profile as a photographer has grown, his role as an ambassador for the natural world has grown, too, with groups around the world calling on his knowledge and experience.

“For me that’s always been part of what I do and why I focus my camera on the natural world,” Lanting says. “I’m fascinated by it, and I care about its future. My background is in environmental economics, so I brought that scientific background to my work. The advocacy’s always been there, but it’s become more and more focused by supporting quite a few organizations. I serve as an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund, and I serve on the Chairman’s Council of Conservation International. I serve as a trustee for UC Santa Cruz. Giving back is important.”

The filming of the documentary has given members of the conservation community the opportunity to speak about the impact of Lanting’s career, which has affected the couple deeply.

“I was very moved to hear people speak about Frans’ work, and his contribution,” says Eckstrom. “It makes you think how so many times you’re out in the field somewhere and you’re alone, or you’re one-on-one with a pride of lions. You’re doing this work and you’re trying to bring so much meaning to what you produce, and make it matter and make it speak to the plight of lions or another conservation issue. But you work alone so much. So when you can hear people telling you that it did make a difference, and it does matter, and how much they appreciate what you do, it’s very moving.”

“It’s gratifying to hear people who we admire acknowledge that the work is inspiring and helping them as well,” agrees Lanting. “In the world of conservation, there are enormous challenges. Nobody will solve these problems on their own. Certainly we can only aspire to add voices to the public discourse. But if it really touches somebody, or if you know there’s a material difference you’ve made—god knows where and when—it’s really gratifying.”

cov 2The naturalist aspect of Lanting’s work is something Eckstrom has always appreciated. “He understands the animals and the environments by researching everything and studying and observing before he even shoots it,” she says. “He’s always wanted to share, he’s always done public presentations and all sorts of outreach. All of that knowledge comes tumbling out when he gives a presentation or when he does a show.”

In Santa Cruz, his shows can draw 1,000 people, but he hasn’t done one in a few years. He’ll return to the local stage Feb. 6, when he and Eckstrom present “Bay of Life, A Celebration of California’s Central Coast” at the Rio Theatre (tickets go on sale this week). With proceeds from the day’s two shows benefiting the Seymour Center at Long Marine Lab, “Bay of Life” is another chance for Lanting to focus on the area he’s called home for 30 years now. Ironically, with all of his international photography, it’s the one place he never feels he gets to work enough in.

“The Monterey Bay is a place we really care about, and we never seem to find enough time to do justice to what we have here,” he says.

Something else this time for reflection has done, Lanting says, is “put our appreciation for where we live and work here in Santa Cruz in perspective. There’s a reason we’re here. We share a world-class environment, we live in a great community that cares about the place we share. But we face some challenges here. Ever more people want to come here, our resources are finite. We can’t have everything.”

WORK IS A TRIP

Even in this year of retrospectives, though, Lanting and Eckstrom haven’t had a whole lot of time to look back. Earlier this year there was the Smithsonian exhibit to prepare, and then the Annenberg right after. Since filming the documentary this summer—where they also invited the film crew into their home in Bonny Doon—they’ve already done an expedition to Brazil, and are leaving for Greenland in September. This is one of the trips they organize a couple of times a year for small groups, acting as guides to interesting places around the world, and this time they’ll sail a three-masted schooner along the West Coast of Greenland.

“We’re chartering helicopters to take people onto the ice cap of Greenland,” says Lanting, “so they get a first-hand experience of what is happening in a place that is changing very quickly because of climate change.”

In the short time in between, they also moved to a new office on the Westside of Santa Cruz, an airy and open two-story space on Delaware that, as one might expect, gets incredible light.

“It’s a great neighborhood, it’s close to where we live, and this part of the Westside is up and coming. This space suits us very well,” says Lanting. Though they won’t be opening a retail space, they will host workshops, the first of which will be April 6-10 of next year. In some ways, the couple’s life is like a modern take on the globetrotting adventurers of old, but their motivations could not be more different. Thrill seekers they are not. “It’s a search for new experiences, but it’s not the thrills, per se,” says Lanting. “We explore, we seek understanding, as opposed to seeking thrills.”

“There’s enough thrilling stuff that happens,” says Eckstrom. “You don’t need to seek it.”

BOX BOX BOX

The ‘LIFE’ exhibition, including the new documentary, opens at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles on Oct. 24. The ‘Into Africa’ exhibit continues at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. until August 2016.

Lanting and Eckstrom will present ‘Bay of Life, A Celebration of California’s Central Coast’ at two shows, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. Tickets go on sale Aug. 27 at seymourcenter.brownpapertickets.com, with proceeds going to the Seymour Center at Long Marine Lab.

Lanting’s next photo workshop in Santa Cruz, entitled ‘Monterey Bay Spring,’ is April 6 – 10, 2016.  An additional weekend of flower photography is scheduled for April 15 -17, 2016, and will be hosted at the UCSC Arboretum. For information on workshops or to reserve space, go to lanting.com, or email [email protected]

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