Get This Crow Some Wiener Schnitzel

Caught in the Act caught up with National Geographic photographer Vincent J. Musi a few weeks ago to talk about his ever-evolving career with the organization that may have invented the “dream job” category for photographers and writers. In this blog, we share excerpts from the interview, where Vince reveals the unique workaday moments on assignment for the illustrious magazine. He appears at the Straz Center with his talk, Where the Wild Things Live, part of our Nat Geo LIVE! series, on Jan. 19.

2015 photographer Vincent J Musi by Callie Shell

Photographer Vincent J Musi. Photo: Callie Shell, 2015

CITA: Did you start submitting single images to Nat Geo that led to the assignments that came your way?

Vince: You wait for an opportunity to get your foot in the door. I had an assignment in Canada and thought it would lead to something else … but it didn’t. Then I had another assignment in Texas that failed miserably, and I was sort of fired, but I came back from that to start over again. Eventually, I was doing a small book project in New England called The Driving Guide to New England, and I was living in a 1982 Chevy Suburban they’d given me. They were like, “here’s 500 rolls of film and a Suburban” that got like four miles to the gallon. Nat Geo called me at a pay phone and the editor was like, “I have this story on the Shenandoah River, and I need a cover for it. You get two weeks.” And I said, “I don’t want it.” He was stunned. I said, “I want the whole story, not just two weeks.” He says, “You don’t have the chops for that. Now, what do you know about landscape photography?” And I lied. I said, “I think about landscape photography every day. It’s all I dream of.” So: I lied. That’s how I got in, around 1995 or so.

CITA: That’s honest career advice—start by lying.

Vince [laughs]: I come clean with it. It’s true. That story was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I remember sitting in the Suburban in Virginia going, “I really should have said no.” It was cold, the light was bad. I didn’t have another landscape story until last year, and even that one took me eight years to finish.


South Carolina’s ACE Basin is one of the largest undeveloped Estuaries on the east coast. This aerial view of the Combahee River was part of long-term essay on the region, the only other Nat Geo landscape story Vince has done since the Shenandoah River. Photo: Vincent J Musi/National Geographic Creative

Vince: Most [Nat Geo] photographers are looking for some boondoggle to get to go to a bear catch or somewhere interesting. I wanted a boondoggle that would keep me at home [in South Carolina]. I wanted to spend time with my wife and son. It was a successful boondoggle, but that story about did me in. In many ways, it’s a landscape only a mother could love, you know? [laughs]


Photo from Musi’s work documenting South Carolina’s ACE Basin. Photo: Vincent J Musi/National Geographic Creative

CITA: You’ve mentioned in other interviews you’re not exactly the outdoor type. That kind of sets you apart from other Nat Geo photographers.

Vince: Well, I like to say they aren’t playing the theme music behind me when I go out on assignment. It’s not that I fear the outdoors, it’s just that I’m not one of those guys with the opportunity to do one of the big treks-across-Africa, live-up-in-a-blind or have-wild-tigers-try-to-eat-me stories. Often, I take the stories other photographers turn down and embrace those stories. I find beauty in overlooked things, those simple, everyday things we take for granted. The worst thing that happens to us out there is we have to park too far from the front door of the hotel. We might run low on bottled water.


Vince’s career led him to become something of a celebrity photographer for animals made famous in cognition studies. Azy the orangutan uses a touch screen to collaborate with scientist Rob Shumaker. Photo: Vincent J Musi/National Geographic Creative

CITA: A turning point in your career was your Nat Geo assignment for the story on animal cognition, that animals have thoughts and feelings.

Vince: I’d never made portraits before, then I had a son. I photographed him looking straight into the camera. That happened. Then we bought a house overrun by wild animals. Raccoons, snakes, squirrels. Everything. I hired this guy to remove the animals. He was pretty cool and had animals living with him at his house, so I photographed him. My editor saw some of these pictures and says, “I have just the story for you.” I thought she was crazy. I hadn’t taken pictures of animals before. For Geographic, animals have been photographed very, very well. The minimum level of quality was higher than I could fathom. I didn’t know how to light animals, how to interact with them … I was terrified all around. But I wanted something I’d never done before at that point in my career, so I took it as a challenge. The magazine was patient with me as I learned how [to take these animal portraits]. Now, my appreciation and respect for the animal world—I’m overwhelmed. Just overwhelmed. Every time I’m around these guys I learn something new that blows me away.

ALEX the parrot

Alex, short for Avian Language Experiment, an African Grey Parrot well-known for demonstrating a cognitive ability comparable to a six-year-old human. He died in 2007, with an obituary in the New York Times. Photo: Vincent J Musi

CITA: You’ve gotten to photograph Alex the Parrot and Kanzi the Bonobo. What was it like meeting them, animals who could literally communicate with you?

Vince: At the time, Alex was with Irene [Pepperberg, the ethologist studying parrot cognition] at Brandeis University. The lab was so small it couldn’t accommodate Alex, me and my equipment, so she just gave him to me.

CITA: Just put him on your arm?

Vince: Yeah, he went up on my shoulder. I had a parrot years before so I thought I was so smart. We hung out for the better part of three or four hours, conversation going one way, there was whistling back and forth. Then he looks at me and says, “Will you tickle me on the chair?” I thought, jeez, somebody’s playing a joke, but it was real. Alex was an extraordinary bird, and that was one of those extraordinary experiences.

Kanzi the bonobo

Kanzi the bonobo acquired language skills spontaneously and makes tools at the level of early humans. Photo: Vincent J Musi.

Vince: With Kanzi, I was wholly unprepared for the level of what his comprehension and interaction was going to be. I had to ask permission to photograph him. His people were like, “Have you brought anything for him?” I hadn’t, so Kanzi told them he wanted Starbucks for himself and his friends, and I sent my assistant back to Des Moines to go get coffee. In the meantime, I sat on the floor with this thick, bulletproof glass kind of stuff between us. The only thing I had to give him was a roll of duct tape. A huge, $30 roll of really nice duct tape. He had taken this duct tape in his hand and mouth and he was tearing it down to the core in about two minutes. It’s so noisy in there [The Great Ape Trust of Iowa], and so I said, without a hand gesture or any movement to indicate what I meant, “Can Vince have the duct tape?” Kanzi slammed that roll of duct tape right on the glass in my face. Never missed a beat.

African cichlid

African Cichlid, pronounced “sik-lid.” Photo: Vincent J Musi

CITA: How in the world do you get your underwater photographs?

Vince: Well, for this cichlid, similar to the ones you find in any pet store, we had to go all the way to California, where a scientist at Stanford studies them. There are millions in tanks everywhere, and I thought, what am I going to do? So, I went and bought one of those plastic FOR SALE signs at Lowe’s and put it in the tank behind the fish. I spent eight hours photographing this fish. The scientists are like, “you’re never going to get anything different from what we’ve got. We see these things every day.” Then they see the pictures and say, “Whoa! Well, how’d you do that!” And I say, “I have been here for eight hours. Watching that one fish.”

Vince Musi

Photo from Charleston Style & Design.

CITA: In the images you select, what story are you hoping to tell?

Vince: I want people to see where people and animals live and what they do. You make your mind up about the image, you shouldn’t have me do that for you. I’m really looking for the most heroic image. We spent five days trying to photograph this raven outside of Austria and man, that guy just tortured me. I didn’t think we were going to get it. It was the first time I thought I was going to walk away and not have a picture. I had test pictures of a beautifully lit rock. Then, on the fifth day, he was ready to work. We got the picture in five minutes. We tried everything—french fries, cheese—and in the end, I was able to make friends with him with a $20 piece of wiener schnitzel.


Mario Infanti’s cougar Sasha lounges in her part of a 3,000 square foot enclosure at his Florida home. Photo: Vincent J Musi.

For more details on Vince’s Straz Center appearance, visit his web page.

Finding the Art in Nature

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The Callanish Stones on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. (This photo of Callanish Standing Stones is courtesy of TripAdvisor.)

Art and the performing arts are, at their basic level, a means of creating community and expressing our understanding of the world and ourselves. They have been interwoven with our natural world since human beings evolved to make art – our unique language of creativity that has incredible power.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, evidence for both visual arts and performing arts dates to roughly 40,000 years ago, although, quite unexpectedly, in separate parts of the world. The Stone Age cave paintings of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the bone-carved flutes found in Europe emerged concurrently. Both early artifacts record humans’ reflection in and use of nature. Nature inspired our artistic abilities, encouraging our creative minds to flourish in painting, sculpture, music and dance. Humans used art to honor animals, sacred places and celestial events. We then applied our talents to ceremony and ritual, inextricably weaving our self-expression to nature and to the heavens.

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Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are among the oldest of their kind. (Photo: Maxime Aubert/Griffith University/Australia)

Not much has changed for many artists who still draw inspiration from nature and use natural themes and materials to communicate their ideas and impressions of our world. Today, the National Park Service includes an artists-in-residence program, encouraging the continuation of humanity’s vital artistic interaction with the natural world. From Isadora Duncan’s early modern dance work in nature to Asadata Dafora’s 1932 landmark Awassa Astrige/Ostrich dance that introduced traditional African nature dances to American audiences, choreographers have drawn on natural phenomena to explore dimensions of the human experience. Nature herself provided humans with a built-in instrument, the voice, which scientists argue was our first experiment with music-making some 530,000 years ago.

But, over the past few thousand years, humanity’s relationship to nature drastically changed our environment and our way of thinking about it. Art is how we see life, so as growing concerns over clean water, loss of species, climate change, natural resources and overdevelopment affect our future, many artists responded by offering art and the performing arts as part of global discussions on such concerns.

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Photo: Straz Center Instagram (@strazcenter)

In 2008, artists and scientists gathered in Europe and Asia as part of the Connect2Culture Initiative to begin talks about the intersections of art and sustainability and how the arts and performing arts can create a new way of thinking about the natural world. Around the United States, universities are offering classes in arts and the environment, and new fields of study—such as dance ecology and music ecology—specifically deal with bodies and sounds as they relate to nature. Students of these artistic-ecological meldings produce exquisite examinations of movement and sound that delight audiences and uphold humanity’s artistic origins.

Our own backyard is chock-full of people unearthing the primal visceral power of art and nature to connect us to each other, ourselves and our world. In November 2014, St. Petersburg hosted Blue Ocean, a film festival and conservation summit, and the Springs Eternal Project in Gainesville creates partnerships between advocates, artists, scientists and researchers to inspire Floridians to revere and protect our fragile springs water systems. Kuumba Drummers and Dancers, Tampa’s only African dance ensemble, continues Dafora’s work in preserving traditional folkloric African dances used to communicate between performers, audience and aspects of nature.

Attendant to the performing arts’ ability to unite with science to help propel humanity into new perspectives is the basic, fundamental power of nature’s own artistry to heal the human heart and mind. In Florida, we are privileged to experience the choreography of flight in a flock of white ibis by doing nothing more than heading to the nearest body of water. We can go further in the Florida wilderness to witness the terrific symphony of bull alligators bellowing during mating season. In our backyards, we have the great belching chorus of frogs and toads that so enriches the dramatics of a sky full of stars.

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Photo: Daffodil’s Photo Blog

We, too, flock to the beaches, congregate on riverbanks and witness, every year, a great migration of human beings to the Sunshine State. Why? Because, deep within us, lies our undeniable connection to the beat of life. We participate in the art of nature whether we know it or not, and we draw together in the many expressions of our artistic celebration of living on this earth. There are tracings of many human hands surrounding a prehistoric deer on a cave wall in Sulawesi to prove it.