By Carley Stavis
Frans Lanting has built his career by traveling the world with a camera. He has peered through the lens at the animals of Africa, the canopies of South America’s rainforests, and the untouched beauty of Borneo in Southeast Asia. He has ventured into the freezing Antarctic, the heat of the desert and the most densely vegetated spots in the world to get the perfect shot. And yet the place he calls home, where his bed and his studio are both found, is none other than Santa Cruz.
Lanting has worked for National Geographic and Outdoor Photographer, has seen exhibits of his photos open worldwide, and has created more than a dozen books of his photographs. And along the way, Santa Cruz has held tight to its special place in his heart. Coming full circle, he has made it back to the place where his very first gallery opened, nearly 30 years ago, at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, with his newest exhibit “Jungles.”
*A Dutch import to California*: Born in the Netherlands in 1951, Lanting moved to the U.S. after completing his Dutch education. It was in Santa Cruz, he says, where his career really began over two decades ago.
“I started my career on these [Santa Cruz] beaches,” Lanting said. “I found inspiration in the shorebirds, in the sea otters, in the butterflies, and it took me on a trip around the world that is still continuing.”
In Santa Cruz, Lanting found an environment full of resources for budding environmentalists like himself — he was engaged in post-graduate environmental studies research at UC Santa Cruz — which helped help him overcome some of the obstacles that new photographers often face.
“Practicing photography, especially when it comes to animals, can be really mortifying if you don’t know where to find the animals, how to get close to them or how you need to interact with them,” Lanting said. “But all of that was made possible in Santa Cruz.”
*Lizards, treetops, and baboons, oh my!* It was in 1980 that Lanting’s very first exhibit opened at the Museum of Natural History right here in cozy Santa Cruz.
Since then, Lanting has worked in conjunction with the museum doing benefits, exhibits, and talks, all in an effort to raise money and awareness about the environmental causes he views as important.
His work returned once again to the Natural History Museum Feb. 15 with “Jungles,” featuring an array of still-lifes, animal portraits and close-ups spanning the entirety of his multi-decade career.
One unique aspect of the photo collection, aside from the lengthy timeframe over which it was shot, is the diversity of images.
Vikie Hariton is the director of Arizona-based Museum Presentation Associates and has worked with Lantig on many of his projects in the past.
“Frans has literally composed a visual symphony with his photographs, from the very quiet jungle at dawn to the energy and power of a running jaguar, and every nuance in between,” she said. “You can feel his passion for the jungle in every photograph.”
With awards for his work amounting — including Wildlife Photographer of the Year from the BBC and the Photoimaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association, the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award and the Lennart Nilsson Award — it is hard to deny Lanting’s instinctual artistic abilities.
The Museum of Natural History’s supervisor, Jenifer Lienau-Thompson, noted, “Frans’ work is always striking and this exhibit is no exception. He has the unique ability to portray these unbelievable and intimate relationships in different ecosystems and the result is a stunning exhibit.”
The exhibit, open through April 27, promises to deliver size, spectacle and striking beauty.
“One of my favorite aspects of this exhibit is the sheer size and diversity of images,” said Danielle Marquis, the manager of Lantig’s Santa Cruz gallery.
“The jungles Frans explored for this exhibit offer such a lush arrangement of biodiversity,” Marquis said. “They have both aesthetic splendor and remarkable natural history which offered prime photographic opportunities.”
*Beyond the Photos*: While the beauty and brilliance of Lanting’s work can be taken at face value, he and wife Chris Eckstrom — a writer and editor specializing in natural history, and Lanting’s partner at the gallery — hope museum attendees will take away a greater environmental message.
“I think people need to understand more about the natural world or they’re not going to care enough about our whole planet,” Eckstrom said. “It’s really important that they see those intimate things, and those precious things, about individual animals that [Frans and I] have had the privilege to see.”
Lienau-Thompson said that as an artistic medium, photography — specifically Lanting’s photography — has the ability to bring to the forefront of people’s minds many important but often ignored issues.
“Underlying the beauty so evident in all these photographs is the message that we really do need to take action to preserve the world and its creatures,” Lienau-Thompson said. “Frans convinces us of this in the way he tells the stories of animals and environments, and his work gives a more intimate view of animals’ lives than anything else I have ever seen. It’s very powerful.”
Marquis emphasized the environmental message.
“This earth has an amazing capacity for life that is all too often overlooked in our busy daily lives,” Marquis said. “But this exhibit should leave visitors knowing just how precious the earth is.”
Adult tickets are available for $2.50 at the museum Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information on the exhibit, gallery or books by Lanting and Eckstrom, visit Lanting.com.