By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Aperture Foundation
“A Wild Life” recounts Nick Nichols’ life as a child in north Alabama dreaming of faraway lands to an internationally acclaimed photojournalist working to protect the world’s most vulnerable habitats.
Michael “Nick” Nichols owes his photography career to a Rolling Stones concert – actually two concerts.
When Nichols was in his third semester as an art major at the University of Montevallo, he was drafted into the U.S. Army because he neglected to complete the paperwork for a student deferment. The war in Vietnam was winding down and he had a choice. He could serve the required two years in the infantry or sign up for three years and work in the Army’s photography unit.
Already a budding photographer, Nichols was wrestling with making the decision when he learned the Rolling Stones were scheduled to play in Mobile on June 28 – the day he was scheduled to report for military duty. If he chose to extend his service for another 365 days, he could defer his enlistment until fall. Choice made: he’d go to the Mobile concert and then another in Tuscaloosa the following night.
“I wasn’t a musician, but I wanted to be Mick Jagger,” said Nichols in “The Wild Life,” a biography of his extraordinary life written by Melissa Harris, an editor at the Aperture Foundation.
“A Wild Life: A Visual Biography of Photographer Michael Nichols” (Aperture, 2017) chronicles the photographer’s rise from his native Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to an international wildlife photojournalist for National Geographic and many other magazines. The well-written, thoroughly researched prose by author Harris is supplemented by Nichols’ magnificent photos taken around the world.
Nichols grew up poor in a dysfunctional family, but he was rich with imagination and creativity. He credits his high school art teacher, Jean Schulman, with encouraging him to think visually. Following his Army stint, he returned to finish his college degree at the University of North Alabama in Florence, where he was the chief photographer for the student newspaper. After graduation, he worked at the Florence Times-Daily and perfected his skills as a visual storyteller.
He was discovered in 1977 by international photojournalist Charles Moore, also an Alabama native, who worked for Life magazine. He eventually went to work for Moore in San Francisco where he remembered hoping that he would be “the Mick Jagger of photography.”
Instead he was described as “The Indiana Jones of Photography” by Paris Match, the well-respected weekly news magazine, for his death-defying photos. His photo essays for Rolling Stone, Life, and many other magazines were not about his favorite rock band but rather about the precarious balance between humans and nature. Images for his first photographic book, “Gorilla: Struggle for Survival in the Virungas,” were taken during three trips to Africa beginning in 1981 and those trips changed the course of his career.
“I started off in my life just wanting to chase significant images, but the gorillas changed all that… I understood immediately that animals are individuals and have rights. This is where and when I find my soul,” Nichols told Harris in “A Wild Life.”
Nichols has numerous awards from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Pictures of the Year International competitions. The Overseas Press Club of America granted him a prize for reporting “above and beyond the call of duty,” an honor usually reserved for combat photographers.
“Wildlife photography is not the right term to describe what Nick does,” Harris explained in her book. “Nick approaches his work in [a] reportorial tradition: he is a photojournalist in the wild. And like other photojournalists in areas of crises, he sheds light on the inner workings of communities, the intrinsic significance – even magnificence – of what’s at stake and the horrors of the battlefield.”
Harris worked with Nichols for two decades on various projects for Aperture magazine, an advocacy-driven publication founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange among others. In 2012, she followed Nichols and his wife, Reba, into the Serengeti where the idea for a biography about Nichols’ life jelled.
The Serengeti photos in the chapter “Harvest” were not only beautiful but also technically interesting. Harris masterfully describes the photographer’s use of robot cameras and infrared non-visible light (for night shots when lions are more active). Nichols fiercely believes animals’ habitats should not be disturbed by flashes and intrusive photographers. It matters to Nichols that his photographs depict actual life in the wild.