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Explore the Exhibition

This exhibition surveys the work of Michael “Nick” Nichols, who has explored the natural world for almost forty years. Nichols approaches photography with the serious purpose and derring-do of an investigative journalist and the imaginative sweep of a master storyteller. These qualities, paired with his dogged patience, have resulted in an extraordinary body of photographs about the wild.

Brutal Kinship

In 1999 Nichols and Dr. Jane Goodall published Brutal Kinship, a book about human interaction with chimpanzees. It opens with photographs of chimps in the wild and then follows the authors as they visit places where chimps are sold, used as pets or performers, or act as medical test subjects.

The concept of brutal kinship—our interdependence on and exploitation of the natural world—informs Nichols’s approach to everything he photographs. He argues we need the wild not only for its raw materials but also its dangers and beauty. For ages a force greater than any human endeavor, the wild now needs us to ensure its survival.


To create an original project around lions, Nichols focused on two prides inhabiting distinct landscapes within the Serengeti: the savanna Vumbi pride and the woodland Barafu pride.

The Vumbi pride includes lionesses and their cubs as well as two adult males who defend the pride and their territory on the dry plains (vumbi is Swahili for “dust”). Experiencing the seasonal cycles along with his subjects, Nichols observed what lions endure to survive. His attention to the demands of each habitat heightens his ability to convey the interior lives of these animals.


Nichols has photographed African elephants for more than twenty years. He spent months at Zakouma National Park at the outset of the current ivory crisis, and later worked at a research facility and an orphan elephant nursery. A selection of these photographs form Nichols’s book Earth to Sky: Among Africa’s Elephants, A Species in Crisis.

For this project, Nichols spent long periods with individual animals and their families, enabling him to achieve a new level of intimacy with his subjects. He observed their social dynamics while negotiating the nuances of their etiquette, taking precautions to not overstep boundaries.


In 2014 National Geographic asked Nichols to serve as field leader on a project in Yellowstone. He spent fifteen months there, getting to know its creatures, people, and landscapes. Nichols was galvanized by Yellowstone’s fundamental challenge: its existence as a wildlife preserve and its mandate to serve as a place “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

As a photographer, he is interested in both stories. As a conservationist, he advocates for finding new solutions to these competing needs, which are critical if we are to sustain Yellowstone, and places like it, for future generations.

The Last Place on Earth

In 1999 Nichols and scientist J. Michael Fay began a journey on foot across an uninhabited corridor in Central Africa. For Fay the purpose of the 2000-mile trek, which he called the Megatransect, was to catalogue flora and fauna. Nichols accompanied him for five three-week stints as well as photographed the region on his own.

Nichols and Fay named the resulting book The Last Place on Earth, a title chosen to convey the rarity of such a large expanse of undeveloped land. According to Nichols, the world needs more “last places,” lands where animals are truly wild.

Wild Encounters in the Collection

Tommy Dale Palmore’s painting Reclining Nude, 1976, and Michael Nichols’s photograph of a silverback gorilla, 2000. Image courtesy of the artist. © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Explore our evolving relationship with the wild in this selection of collection works. And during your next visit to the Museum, use this guide to track down 14 photographs from the Wild exhibition that have “escaped” into our permanent collection galleries.