Q&A: Lisa Langell on Wildlife Photography and a Boyce Thompson Exhibition

Courtesy of Lisa Langell

You might recognize Lisa Langell’s name from the handful of her photos that have appeared in Arizona Highways recently. Langell, a Michigan native, specializes in wildlife photography, and her work is on display at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, near Superior, all this month. We asked Langell a few questions about her career, the show and her advice for budding wildlife photographers. (This interview was conducted via email and edited for length and clarity.)

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in photography in general.
I currently live in Scottsdale; however, my passion started for me with my incredible great-aunt, Josephine James, who taught me about birds. When I was 14, in 1986, Canon A-1 (35 mm) in hand, we traveled to Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada, for its world-renowned spring bird migration. We saw over 100 species in one day. The tiny, colorful warblers were my favorite. I drooled at not only the birds, but the many nature photographers with their long lenses. I distinctly remember thinking, I want to do that someday. That started my story and my journey.

Do you photograph full time, or do you do something else as well?
I am a full-time photographer now, but my journey to this career was definitely not on a straight, well-paved road. Photography and birding were hobbies for me since age 8. I was initially a floral designer and decorator for 15 years, from the time I was a young teen all the way through graduate school. I put myself through college in that wonderful career that I still often miss.

After grad school, I worked for 15 years as a psychologist, international consultant, researcher and speaker in education. I worked extensively with children with learning disabilities, focusing on early intervention and best practices. I loved the profession, yet photography always beckoned. In 2011, I set up my part-time photography business, and in 2015, I began working full time as a photographer. I love every moment, and I still get to help people daily — just in different ways than ever before.

Clearly, your focus is nature photography. What drew you to that particular discipline?
Initially, bird photography drew me in as a teen; however, I’ve loved being in the field, the woods, along the shores, in a marsh, etc., ever since I was a young child. I chuckle at it now, but as a 5-year-old, I used to make “mock” birds’ nests out of dead grasses and mud, prop them up in trees and fill my heart with hope that birds would choose them over building their own. In winter, I’d dig tunnels in the snow drifts to make “dens” for the local cottontails, then line them with the “fluff” from cattails. (It looked like rabbit fur to me!) I fed the birds, I participated in Christmas bird counts, I even tried to write my own little field guide of the neighborhood when I was a kid. I’ve always loved and cared about nature. Photographing and interpreting nature through the lens keeps me connected to it in a really personal and special way.

What are some of the challenges you encounter when photographing animals (as opposed to doing other kinds of photography)?
Wildlife to photograph and the “perfect storm” of conditions — the right light, moment, background, foreground, subject, action and composition — have to be there to create a memorable image. But the challenge I love most about wildlife photography is the one that also keeps me pushing forward. It is my genuine passion to create fresh, innovative, evocative and quality imagery, workshops and learning experiences for my audience. I also love connecting my audience with nature in increasingly powerful ways through my work.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in nature photography? 
First: The word “amateur” means “lover of something.” Embrace this beautiful word, and remember, no matter how much we already know, we are always a “newbie” at the next skill we are about to learn.

Second: This is a lifelong journey you are embarking upon. Do not get discouraged, even when the techniques become challenging or doubt creeps in. Find your inspiration in nature.

Third: Find places you love to shoot, and get to know them well. Knowing your subjects’ behavior patterns, habitat and unique quirks will help you anticipate a great shot in the making.

Above all, remember: Seek and appreciate the experiences and memories you encounter through your journey with photography, not just the images.

How did the Boyce Thompson show come together? Do you photograph there a lot, or have a relationship with them?
The Art Gallery at Boyce Thompson is a juried exhibition. I submitted my portfolio nearly a year ago and was awarded the opportunity to exhibit my work in for the month of March. I was honored to have my work hang in a place I dearly love. Also, 20 percent of sales from the show will benefit the arboretum.

I have been an Arizona State Parks volunteer since about 2010, focusing my work at Boyce Thompson. I teach classes, help with events, fundraise and do other tasks to support the park. Boyce Thompson is an absolute gem in Arizona — the views are simply stunning within and around the park. With wildlife, nature, hiking, beautiful botanicals and some of the most friendly, caring, amazing staff I have ever met, it is a place you will visit and quickly feel right at home. I love to photograph the park — it feels like home to me.

What can people expect to see at the show? Are the photos all from Arizona, or from elsewhere as well?
Aside from two images, each of the 30-plus pieces on display and for sale were photographed in Arizona. For the vintage-styled works, I then processed and hand-printed them via a multi-step method to create the vintage look, then mounted them to wooden backdrops made from reclaimed wood sourced in Arizona. I sourced antique-style zinc frames, found objects from Arizona and other embellishments to finish the pieces. The goal was to create the modern and rustic look while preserving the essence of the birds and animals I photographed. Of special importance, the wood backdrops were created jointly by my father, Sherman, and me.

To learn more about the exhibition, click here. The public can attend an artist’s reception Saturday, March 17, from 1 to 4 p.m.; click here to print a coupon that will get you free admission for the event. To learn more about Lisa Langell, click here.

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