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National Geographic photographer keeps focus on wild things

Vincent Musi photographed Mario Infante and his pet cougar Sasha for a 2014 National Geographic project on exotic pets.
Vincent Musi photographed Mario Infante and his pet cougar Sasha for a 2014 National Geographic project on exotic pets.

Vincent Musi admits he’s the least likely guy to be photographing animals for National Geographic.

He wasn’t raised around animals. He doesn’t have pets. He jokes that he’s sometimes amazed he and his wife – also a photographer – have managed to keep their teenage son alive.

It came about in an odd way. He bought a beach cottage outside Charleston, South Carolina, that had a whole bunch of critters living in it – rats, racoons, squirrels.

“It had been a rental for many years, and everyone thought it was haunted,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Edgar Allan Poe was stationed here, and people thought he’d lived in my house and that it was haunted. People heard noises.”

It wasn’t ghosts. It was the animals skittering about underneath the floorboards and in the ceilings. So he hired a local guy to help him remove the animals. The guy had his own assortment of exotic creatures including an albino raccoon. When one of the National Geographic editors saw the photos Musi had made of this menagerie, she said, “I have just the story for you.” It was a story on animal cognition, and Musi protested that it would never work. But the magazine gave him the freedom to experiment and fail.

He’ll show some of those famous photographs and tell the stories behind them – and even share some of his mistakes – when he comes to Spokane on Tuesday for “National Geographic Live: Where the Wild Things Live.”

The idea for that first animal series, the one on cognition, was to make it look like animals had been photographed on the same day in the same place, even though they weren’t. “In that case, we put everything from a honeybee to a 9,000-pound elephant on a white seamless background, and that was a huge set of challenges to make them look alike even though they were in different places.”

He’s gone on to do more diorama-style animal photo shoots for a series on domestication, shooting with stylized lighting in a documentary fashion. So you have a pig sitting atop a lime green couch, or wolves being lead on leashes through a parking lot. More recently, there was a story on exotic pets, where Musi photographed a deer standing on a bed and a chimpanzee making himself at home in a living room.

“I’m rarely in the wild,” he said. “I don’t do things that you can get hurt doing, in terms of wildebeest stampedes or anything like that. The worst thing that ever happens to me is we run out of water, or something will pee on me occasionally.”

He thinks of himself more in “Dr. Dolittle” terms. He does talk to the animals he photographs.

“I’ve had animals that can actually understand what I’m saying, which is really disconcerting,” he said. “But I do try to lay it out there. If I were coming to photograph you, I might talk to you in the same way about what I’m trying to do. I might get a little crazy. I’ll say, ‘This is your big break. You’re going to be in Geographic. You’re going to represent all lions.’ That kind of thing.”

Musi, who comes from Pittsburgh originally, worked in newspapers before joining National Geographic – including a stint at the Missoulian in Montana in the early 1980s. He’ll reflect on that transition in his talk next week.

“It wasn’t a direct path,” he said. “There’s not table at the job fair for National Geographic photographer.”

He also says he’ll talk about his work with animals and how “they’ve tamed me, in a sense.”

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