Early on in Frans Lanting’s new book, “Into Africa”, there’s a photograph of four lionesses that fills a double-page spread. It’s taken from below their eye level and each of them is looking in a different direction. The sky behind is the deep orange of an African dusk. It’s a beautiful image, but most mesmerising are their expressions: intent, wary, focussed on the evening’s hunt. They are unbothered, it seems, by the photographer who is lying in the grass in front of them.
It is this ability to capture the world of wild creatures as they go about their daily lives that sets Lanting apart from his peers. In the foreword to the book, Wade Davis, an anthropologist and explorer from the National Geographic Society, describes Lanting as “arguably the greatest nature photographer in the history of the genre”. Over three decades and across the continents – though most often in Africa – he has produced images of creatures that seem to drill deep into their psyches, creating in us, his audience, an extraordinary sense of empathy for them.
To get this picture of the lionesses Lanting followed the pride for over a month, learning the rhythm of their lives, their individual personalities and how they interacted with each other. It was only then, once they had become used to his presence, that he could take such an intimate portrait. Through the look in their eyes, he captured the essence of what it is to be a hunter in one of the world’s great wildernesses.
Lanting’s pictures – which have appeared in National Geographic magazine as well as in numerous books – are without artifice. A self-taught photographer, he was a scientist before he became captivated by the wonders of the natural world and determined to convey its beauty to us. He has said that he considers humans to be just another species of animal; that, under our differing shapes and skins, we are kin with the greatest and smallest of creatures. That is what these pictures show us.
"Into Africa” is the culmination of countless trips to the great plains, the savannahs, the forests and mighty rivers and lakes of Africa. As he says in his introduction, “Africa is changing fast, but still retains a glorious primordial abundance of wildlife that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.” He wants to ensure that it stays that way. By portraying Africa at its best, focussing on the beauty and not on the poverty, the hunger and resource depletion, he hopes to inspire us to preserve it. We can only hope he succeeds.
“Okavango Delta” (2015)
It was Lanting who first dubbed the Okavango “Africa’s Last Eden”. With its seasonal flooding, the delta has become a haven for wildlife. This picture, of mist floating on the golden wetlands of northern Botswana, draws us in as we search out the detail, following the streams that snake across the plain, looking for the creatures that are surely there, hidden in the grass and in the shadows of the trees. In the top left, a distant flooded plain shines in the evening light.
“Hippo, Botswana” (1989)
This is a wonderful portrait of a stately hippo caught off guard as he emerges from the water. He’s got a wild, rather guilty, canine-like look in his eyes. His ears are pricked, his mouth open, displaying impressive canine teeth above quadruple chins. Hippos are renowned as the most dangerous large land animals in Africa, killing more people per year than lions, leopard, rhinos and buffalo combined, which would account for Lanting’s caption: “I lingered only long enough to expose a few frames.”
“Chimpanzee with tree branch, Senegal” (2007)
The focus of this close-up portrait is the chimpanzee’s hand, which is grasping a spear fashioned out of a tree branch. In the woodlands of Senegal, where this picture was taken, the chimps had been observed by scientists in the act of hunting bush babies with sticks, jabbing them into their burrows. Researchers believe that studying how other primates use tools may provide insights into human evolution.
“Limestone Pinnacles, Madagascar” (1985)
Lanting was largely responsible for bringing the natural wonders of Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, to public attention through his photographic essays in National Geographic. This, arguably, inspired the eponymous trilogy of DreamWorks films which raised its profile in the wider world. Madagascar is not only home to an extraordinary variety of species, many of which are found nowhere else, but its topography is varied and dramatic. In this picture, Lanting looks down from a helicopter onto the limestone pinnacles of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, in the remote west of the country, a largely unexplored area which is home to all sorts of fantastic beasts.
“Aloe, Madagascar” (1985)
This was photographed in the spiny desert of southern Madagascar; the aloe is, like 95% of plant species here, unique to the area. It looks like a hyper-real still-life painting, its waxy waterfall of leaves – which prevent moisture loss – made more beautiful still by the crimson sunset sky, which was caused by the eruption of a volcano in the distant Philippines.
“Chameleon striking, Madagascar” (1985)
It takes patience and a fast trigger hand to capture a shot like this, of a short-horned chameleon shooting out his body-length tongue to capture a grasshopper on its sticky tip. Lanting wrote: “I had to learn how to interpret chameleon body language to anticipate the strike – which happens faster than the eye can see.”
“Black rhino, Namibia” (2009)
Rhino have successfully adapted to the dry and rocky habitat of north-western Namibia; their legs are longer than black rhino found elsewhere, as they need to walk further in search of water. This picture, of a large male calling out as he approaches a waterhole, somehow softens and humanises this shy, armoured beast. Lanting writes that rhinos are doing relatively well in Namibia thanks to successful conservation policies. However, 2017 saw a marked increase in rhino poaching in the area.
“Meerkats, Botswana” (2014)
It’s virtually impossible not to be charmed by meerkats and this group, standing tall on top of their burrow in the early sun of the Kalahari desert, are as comical as they come, their haughty expressions at odds with their prim hand gestures. Meerkats live underground by night, emerging at first light to search for insects and scorpions. They work as a team, taking turns to stand on guard, alert to potential predators – mainly birds of prey – while the others hunt.
“Desert elephants, Namibia” (2009)
This striking photograph, which Lanting chose for the cover of this book, is Africa at its grandest. A family of desert elephants saunter through the majestic Huab River Valley. The grass is a warm gold and the land stretches back to rocky mountains, untouched by any signs of human interference. It brings to mind Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World” (had it been set in Africa) – a land apart from modern life.
“Flamingos, Kenya” (1999)
There can no more joyous sight than this flock of flamingos, a vast field of pink stretching back to an indigo twilit sky. Lanting shot these birds in Lake Nakuru in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley where millions flock to feed and court. Flamingos largely live off shrimp and blue-green algae; the more they eat, the pinker their legs turn. For this image, Lanting used a slow exposure, which blurred the outlines of the birds, turning them into a post-impressionist painting.
Into Africa by Frans Lanting (Collector’s Edition, $350), out now