THIRTY years ago, in the age before the cruise ships came, I spent four months in the Galápagos Islands with the photographer Eliot Porter. The Galápagos were wilder, less-visited islands then. They had yet to become the most photographed archipelago on earth. Porter was making the pictures, and I was gathering notes, for the first volume in what would become a vast library, that ponderous collection of large-format Galápagos books now decorating coffee tables everywhere. Porter, our first great master of nature photography in color, was then sixty-four, the grand old man of his art. I was twenty-one, just beginning a career that was to be spent in large part outdoors in the company of nature photographers. Among my duties in the Galápagos were helping to lug Porter's 4X5 camera and tripod up volcanoes, rowing dories in through surf, and hunting meat, like Robinson Crusoe, on various islands with our guide's old bolt-action .22. It was one of the best times of my life.
Accompanying our expedition was Tad Nichols, a former Disney cameraman, and in the islands we crossed paths with the British nature photographer Alan Root, then just beginning his own remarkable career. In the Galápagos I had my first opportunity to study the habits of cameramen in the wild.
Anchored off Santiago Island one evening, over a dinner of feral goat, the photographers grew expansive and the talk turned to nature fakery. Porter was a purist. He believed in shooting straight. He admitted to having occasionally moved a stone or feather or piece of driftwood to improve one of his compositions, but he was generally opposed to this sort of manipulation, and he grew uneasy talking about it. Root and Nichols came from a more pragmatic, rough-and-tumble school of commercial nature photography. Root told us the story of a Life cover a colleague had done. The image had begun in the mind of one of the magazine's editors. By a kind of redactional clairvoyance this editor, seated comfortably at his desk in Manhattan, had seen it all clearly: leopard and its kill in thorn tree, branches framing a setting sun. The photographer set off in quest of this vision, traveling the East African savanna for weeks with a captive leopard, killing antelopes, draping the carcasses in the branches of various thorn trees, and cajoling the leopard to lie proudly on the "kill," a tableau that the photographer shot against a succession of setting suns. Tad Nichols laughed ruefully yet appreciatively. He told the story of his own work on Disney's The Living Desert, most of which was filmed on ersatz dunes built on a vast sound-stage table. Root countered with a story of some clever photoduplicity, the details of which I have since forgotten. Nichols came back with a tale of how Disney's minions bulldozed lemmings off cliffs for the famous lemming-suicide sequence.