Melissa Harris is the author of “A Wild Life,” a new book about renowned wildlife photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols, due June 6.
The book charts Nichols’ experiences with the Magnum Photos cooperative, the development of his environmental calling, and the great adventure photo-stories of his life – first for GEO and Rolling Stone, and then National Geographic in recent decades.
Harris, herself a distinguished art photography editor, interviewed hundreds of people and traveled with Nichols to Africa and Yellowstone, and to more relevant sites on her own for research.
The book includes more than 120 photos by Nichols, from the Congo Basin to Sequoia National Park.
Here, Harris answers a few questions about “A Wild Life” and its hero.
Focus on the Story: What drew you to this project?
Melissa Harris: I believe in Nick as a passionate photojournalist, covering critical stories, bearing witness and giving voice. Knowing him for so long, I knew that he had an extraordinary life story and that he’s a superb storyteller. And I admire Nick’s ethics as a journalist in the wild — his respect for his subjects, and commitment to leaving no trace of his presence, no footprint, etc.
The fact that his stories engage extraordinary protagonists – a pride of lionesses, an elephant matriarch, conservation scientists like Jane Goodall and Mike Fay… Well, that made it all the more interesting. How could I resist? Nick thinks he baited me into doing it, but I think I baited him.
FOTS: You did a lot of reporting and travel with Nick, and on your own. Why was that important?
MH: I wanted to see Nick at work in the field – how he moved, his instincts, his responses. I also knew interviewing him on site would inspire more anecdotes and memories.
I hoped I’d be able to write more evocatively if I knew what the musk of a mountain gorilla smells like, the feel of a baby elephant’s warm breath, the sound of a lion’s roar across the plains of the Serengeti … if all my senses were on high alert.
By Melissa Harris
Photographs by Michael Nichols
Aperture, June 2017
7 1/2 x 10 inches
350 pages, 150 four-color and black-and-white images
“Technical advances and gadgetry are only facilitators. They’re not the vision, not the voice.”
There was Nick’s life story, the stories he was doing for magazines, and then the stories behind the stories. There was Nick, the charismatic animal, and then the individual great apes, big cats, elephants, and tall trees he focused on – not to mention the conservationists. There were a lot of layers and perspectives, and my job was to weave them together.
FOTS: So how can a writer help a photographer to do that, to shape the story?
MH: We discussed everything and anything with total candor and mutual trust. He knew that I wanted to do this biography as a way to address many of the issues dear to him, and he was all for that. In some ways, I think it took the weight off it being all about him. He sees himself as simply another protagonist. Obviously, he’s the heart and soul of the book, but his universe is vast and inclusive.
FOTS: What should readers of this book get from it? A look at beautiful photos? A life story of an amazing person?
MH: That’s hard to answer. I’m not really comfortable with saying what readers should get out of it. For sure, the captivating photos and the extraordinary life story. But I hope also that they consider the fragility of all that is wild, that when we don’t take care of the planet, we don’t take care of ourselves. We’re all in this together.
FOTS: What can beginning or aspiring photographers learn from Nick? What about experienced pros or amateurs?
MH: How to work ethically, with integrity. That there is value in long-term, character-driven storytelling, rather than a sound-bite, hit-and-run approach. That a conventionally pretty photograph is not nearly as compelling as one with some edge and energy. Technical advances and gadgetry are only facilitators. They’re not the vision, not the voice. That’s what gives the images power and distinguishes a particular sensibility. Photography can still represent a social conscience, stand up for an ideal, advocate, and challenge. Preconceptions are rarely useful. So recognize your baggage going in, and then be open to what happens.
Melissa Harris is editor-at-large of Aperture Foundation, where she has worked for more than twenty-five years, including as editor-in-chief of award-winning Aperture magazine from 2002 to 2012.
Jay Croft is a longtime reporter, editor and corporate communicator. He lives in Atlanta where he runs Story Croft, a communications strategy firm.