Jim Brandenburg recalls how he took his famous image of a leaping wolf and explains how learning to trust his instincts took him on a journey that would change his life forever

Photo Insight with Jim Brandenburg

Jim Brandenburg travelled the world as a photographer with National Geographic magazine for more than 30 years. His work has been published in The New York Times, Life and Time, among others, and he has won numerous awards, including Kodak Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He is the chair of this year’s competition. Every month Jim will share the story behind one of his nature images

The image you see here was taken during a National Geographic assignment to Ellesmere Island, which lies in the far north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. To give you some idea of how remote it is, I can tell you that it’s just short of the North Pole. It’s the most isolated place that I’ve ever been to and it’s very wild. The animals have no fear of humans because there are virtually no people on Ellesmere Island.

I’d been sent there to photograph a dog-sled expedition, which was making its way to the pole. That was what I’d specifically been sent out there to do, but that isn’t the story I came back with because one day I saw something that absolutely moved me: a pack of wolves. The minute I saw these beautiful white wolves I felt my life change. That may sound a little dramatic, but there really is no other way of describing it. Right away I saw the potential of the scene and I knew it was a story that I was born to tell.

However, that was when I found myself presented with a huge quandary. As I was actually in the company of another photographer who had been sent to Ellesmere Island by National Geographic to photograph those same wolves, I had to be pretty sly about it because I couldn’t let on that I was so struck by these animals and was desperate to photograph them. The circumstances of my assignment worked in my favour because I wasn’t actually part of the expedition that I was sent to document. I was a member of the support team, which meant I could come and go as I pleased. I was covering them by way of bush plane, which is a small plane that can flown into remote areas.

The wolf pack happened to reside fairly close to an air base called Eureka, a location that I was constantly travelling to and from. That meant I had lots of time between flights to focus on these wolves, tracking them and learning their behaviour. The problem was that, as this project took place in the late 1980s, I had to send my film back to the magazine to be developed, which gave the game away that I was far more interested in photographing the wolves than the expedition.

As soon as the editors of National Geographic saw my images, they scolded me and told me in no uncertain terms not to do the story. But I couldn’t stop. It was a story of a lifetime. When I talk about this image, the thing that I often like to make reference to is intuition. What that means is that you have to develop an instinct about when to move forward with a story and when to let it go. You must know when to stand your ground and have courage in your convictions. In this case, I had to defy the people paying my wages.

I lived with these wolves to the point that they had no fear of me. I had my tent pitched right next to their den, and I would shoot all day long, reeling off roll after roll of film. I remember the day I took this shot very well. I was using the same equipment as I had for most of the trip: basically a Nikon F3, a Nikon 20mm lens and Kodachrome film. The lens becomes important because most people assume that I shot this photograph from a boat, but actually I was standing on the shore. I composed the shot so the shoreline was just outside the frame. As I was using a 20mm lens, it stretched the scene out slightly and made it appear wider than it is in reality. That’s the great virtue of using a wideangle lens – it gives a scene scope and drama.

When I took this shot I didn’t see it as an image that stood out from the others – not until the editor told me. Then, a little later, I got to see the film on a light table and it blew me away. This particular wolf was the alpha male of the pack. The kind of behaviour you’re seeing here isn’t that unusual because it’s in the nature of the alpha to explore the land around the pack. He was perhaps looking for something to eat, and I was lucky enough to be present to capture this magical moment. It’s one photograph that says it all.

National Geographic soon changed its tune when they saw the roll of film with this particular picture on it. In that one moment, they understood exactly why I was so keen on pursuing this story. This single image sent me off on a three-year journey to study and document these white wolves, and during that time I produced a cover story for the magazine and became involved in a major TV documentary with the BBC. Eventually, it became a best-selling book called White Wolf: Living With an Arctic Legend.

This image has been used many times and it’s become like an old friend to me. It’s one of those images that I revisit on occasion and I get a little emotional about it, particularly when I consider how closely I lived with these wolves and the fact that none of them will be alive now. Their descendants will be out there somewhere, though, which is a comforting thought. This photograph is a wonderful memory of the time I spent with these animals. I feel so fortunate that I was one of the first people to live alongside a wolf colony, and I hope that I’ve managed to capture that experience with some degree of artistry.

I should also add that I do feel bad for the other photographer who was out there shooting these wonderful creatures for a year and my story replaced his. However, when this story appeared, he called me up and gave me the warmest congratulations. That’s another thing that makes me feel emotional when I look at this image – his graciousness.

To see more of Jim’s images visit www.jimbrandenburg.com

Jim Brandenburg was talking to Gemma Padley

  • Moira Cascone

    I am delighted to have found this story behind the story. This is a phenomenal photo and after some months of not having a cover pic for my FB page, I finally chose this one. There is another similar photo floating around the internet which appears to be part of what must have been a series of photos you took from which this particular one was chosen for publication. How many photos did you actually take and are they anywhere available for viewing? I would love to see the entire sequence. Thank you.

  • Bruce Kallsen

    Wonderful story, wonderful picture, incredible instinct.

  • Don Wright

    What a great story you have! To be in such a place to live with the wolves and get such wonderful pictures is a joy and I can understand why it touches your soul in such a way.