In 2011, photographer Vincent J. Musi had the opportunity to shoot several of Houston Zoo's big cats on behalf of National Geographic. This week, Musi and NatGeo have been featuring select images from the series (some of them previously unpublished) on their respective Instagram pages, and they are positively sublime.
The most striking thing about these images, apart from their obvious visual impact, is how much work went into capturing them. Writes Musi:
At the time, the obstacles with regard to lighting and backgrounds seemed insurmountable and I was pretty stressed out during most of the shoot. We created a [makeshift] studio space [in the enclosure that housed] each cat and worked closely with the experts on these captive but untamed animals. It took weeks to make just 8 portraits that would serve to represent big cats in crisis around the world.
Consider the previously unpublished image of a cheetah named Kito, featured below. According to Musi, photographing him and his brother, Kuburi, involved putting the two cats against a huge, seamless paper background and letting them run around:
"No photograph we make is worth endangering or stressing an animal for but the photographer is always fair game for getting sprayed and having the life scared out of him," writes Musi, who says he considers capturing these photographs one of his "all-time great experiences" as a National Geographic photographer, calling the opportunity "humbling, profound and smelly."We've included a few of our favorites from the series below, but you'll find more on Musi's Instagram and webpage. He and NatGeo will be posting images from the series on Instagram all week in support of the Big Cats Initiative, which was founded "to raise awareness and implement change to the dire situation facing big cats."
*National Geographic's Marilyn Terrell shares with us this video of a recent presentation, in which Musi talks a little more about how he captured the Big Cat series. Photographing the snow leopard, he says, involved singing Sinatra while laying in cat urine. How's that for humility?