"Wild," the first solo exhibition of photography by Michael "Nick" Nichols features photographs of gorillas, tigers, lions and elephants in their natural habitat - serenity, ferocity, and curiosity.
For decades, Nichols has been on the run as a National Geographic photographer, traveling to remote parts of the world hauling robots, infrared gear, computer monitors, drones - whatever it took to get as close as possible to an animal on its own turf.
Nichols photography requires a huge amount of technical resources as well as a fantastic amount of patience. He would release robot cameras to creep up to a pride of lions without spooking them. A camera trap around a popular watering hole would be automatically triggered by tripping an infrared beam. He would live in the jungle waiting for weeks, sometimes months, to capture an animal acting completely in its nature.
"If you put the pieces there, and you're patient, something special might happen," said Nichols. "That's what I was always after. I never wanted things clean and tidy. I find that boring."
Nichols is now retired. "I was burned out. My body is broken," he said, referring to a recent knee replacement. At the invitation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he selected a few dozen images to hang on the walls.
He had always shot for pages of magazines, never considering they might be artwork.
"I didn't blink for 40 years," said Nichols. "Maybe that's the reason I never printed my pictures. I never took the time."
"Wild" attempts to infuse the Museum with something genuinely wild. Curator Peter Barberie selected items from the permanent collection to play off of Nichol's photography, to see if photojournalism could fit into the context of high art.
"Well, it doesn't, does it?" said Barberie, chuckling. "That's the short answer."
Barberie couched Nichol's pictures with about a dozen selections from the collection, including abstract sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, pre-Columbian animal sculptures, Japanese screens of birds, even Medieval religion art of the Madonna and child, to match the photos of tigers nurturing their young.
The pairing of artwork with photojournalism traces an historic sweep of mankind's changing relationship with nature. A version of Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom" depicts the Quaker ideal of a lion lying down with a lamb, while Nichols captured a much more gruesome picture of a lion eating the head of a zebra.
Nichols says he was always driven to tell stories, not to make art. His photos have been used by conservation groups advocating for the protection of wildlife.
"They all use my pictures to accomplish some of their goals," he said. "I'm not the activist. My pictures are. I mostly hide out."
While Nichols never shot with the intention of a museum installation, he always wants his photos to be big. He made full-length images of redwood trees hundreds of feet high, by stitching together multiple shots. They were originally used in National Geographic as fold-out images a couple feet long, but at the Art Museum, they were made into banners 60 feet high, dominating the Great Stair Hall.
Nichols says it's unbelievable that he is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"People don't see populist work like this in museums, and I'm a complete populist," he said. "But, secretly, in your heart, you want to be an artist. It's good for the museum too. Museum's can get cloistered without realizing it."
"Wild" stays at the Art Museum through the summer, before it travels to National Geographic in Washington D.C.