CASPER, Wyo. — Early fall is a particularly beautiful time of year to explore Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. The tree and foliage colors are vibrant, and the afternoon light is exquisite. These are the things that make a nature and wildlife photographer wake up and get out in the chilly mornings.
This year, the weather has been cooperating. The animals? Not so much.
“I’m here for the moose this time of year,” said photographer Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven. “The fall colors are happening, the aspen trees are turning yellow and the cottonwoods here are nice, and there’s no moose.”
Jorn has spent the past couple of weeks hauling big, heavy lenses and a camera body or two through nature looking for the right moose shot. He’s been doing this sort of thing for years, keeping an eye and ear on reports of animal movement and using his own knowledge of their patterns. But this year, the moose remain elusive.
“It’s just hours and hours of hiking,” he said. “Two days ago I bumped into a cow, a calf and a big bull, and the colors were nice and the light was beautiful, and the moose never got up.”
This is the true nature of nature photography. It’s far more planning, work and waiting than success.
“It gets kind of frustrating, but then once in a while you get a shot and you’re like, ‘Ah, OK, that made it all worth it.'”
There’s some truth to the old bumper sticker cliché: A bad day (insert outdoor activity here) is better than a good day at the office. In Jorn’s case, he gave up that office job for life in an RV with his wife and dog, documenting nature’s wonder in some of America’s most beautiful places. He spends fall and part of the summer in the Yellowstone area after spending time in Alaska chasing bears, and then heads to New Mexico during winter for bird migration.
Jorn was born in Belgium, where he grew up exploring Europe’s natural beauty with his parents. He earned a computer science degree, and about 20 years ago landed a job in Austin, where he worked IT for several years, eventually becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen along the way. The office work wasn’t satisfying, however.
“While I was working IT in Austin, I got my photography degree, and I started doing weddings and portraits, and on long vacations I started doing wildlife,” he said.
He decided to take a 17-month-long sabbatical, traveling in an RV and improving his nature and wildlife skills. “In 2018, I left my IT job and went full time, traveling and taking pictures,” he said.
“I realized how much I like nature, and how I felt like how it’s more meaningful to me to not only just take pictures, but to work actively on the conservation side.”
Earning a living making and selling photography has always been challenging. These days it’s nearly impossible on its own. The business plan Jorn carefully developed in part during that sabbatical was a string of side hustles to finance his career, which includes selling books and calendars, writing columns and blogs and leading guided photo tours. His blogs, fine art prints and publications are featured at his website, and the products are also at his Etsy store. His latest 13-month calendar for 2024 is now available for preorder and features several images from the Yellowstone area, including some of superstar Grizzly 399 and her cub.
Jorn says most people who live in cities don’t really know what happens in nature and don’t understand the threats to their environment. He hopes his pictures and blog posts can help in some way to spread that awareness. He became fascinated with grizzly bears in Alaska and has followed them closely in Yellowstone as well. One of their main sources of nourishment, the whitebark pine, is struggling due to fungus and climate change. Other risks include the seemingly inevitable delisting of the bear — opening them up to trophy hunting — and collisions with vehicles traveling through the busy park. His concern for their struggle to survive and their future comes up in his photo tours, he said.
“Grizzly bears are one of the slowest mammals to rebound, simply because they mate once every few years and may have one or two cubs, and the cub’s mortality rate is around 50%,” he said, “so they have a lot of things going against them.”
One of those grizzlies, known as 399, has become something of a celebrity over the past few years. Jorn says the celebrity status can be traced to legendary Jackson nature photographer John Mangelsen, who started regularly photographing the bear and her cubs and featuring the prints in his gallery stores.
Another part of the fascination is her survival success. She recently set a new record, Jorn said, after she came out of hibernation at age 27 with a new cub. “She’s the oldest known grizzly bear in the wild to have a cub,” he said, “so she’s kind of the one for better or worse that everyone who comes to Yellowstone wants to see.”
Jorn says it appears she discovered a balance between people and other natural risks. She keeps relatively a close but comfortable distance from people and roads with her cubs, out of the back country where aggressive male grizzlies tend to kill newborn cubs to force females to stop lactating and be receptive to mating.
“Over the years she has had many litters of cubs and pretty much raised them within eyesight of the park roads,” he said. “Whenever I post a picture or write a blog post about her, I’m guaranteed to get replies.”
Jorn says 399 has become in some ways a symbol of the grizzly bear’s struggle in the Yellowstone area, and points out that if hunting is allowed, she’s fair game.
“I don’t like the fact that we have to create something like a 399 to kind of activate people into protecting the bears or taking a closer look at wildlife, and understanding the role they play in the ecosystem,” he said. “They’ve been here longer than we’ve been here.”
Jorn’s 2024 calendar is made up almost entirely of photos he’s been able to make over the past year, many in the Yellowstone area. There are bears, foxes and even moose, who were more cooperative last fall. The striking images are the result of a little luck that is itself the result of intense dedication and work.
“People see your social media feed and they say, ‘Ah, he’s so lucky,'” Jorn said. “It’s not just going outside with the best camera you can afford and think that everything’s going to show up.”
Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven’s work and writing can be found here at his website. His fine art prints and publications are also available here at his Etsy store. He also regularly publishes work at his Instagram account.