St. Louis animal photographer shoots for smiles

Longtime animal photographer Marian Brickner has a particular affinity for bonobos

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Jewish Light

“Ohmygawd! How’d you get that photo?”

If words could provide sustenance, and based on the number of times she’s heard that outpouring, photographer Marian Brickner would be forever feasting.

Instead, she remains intensely driven and scarcely ever without a project. The descendant of achievement-oriented Ashkenazi Jews — her parents and her two brothers all rated lengthy, story-form obituaries in the New York Times — the bifocaled Brickner is also these days the 79-year-old schlepping 20 pounds of camera equipment.

In this era of limited attention spans, the New York transplant is an anomaly. With a preconceived image in her head, whether of a bulging-eyed green praying mantis, its forelegs in an upswing, or of five horses lined up, Radio City Rockette-style, she waits for that image.

No matter if it takes hours, days or subsequent returns months or years later. When she’s got the photo, she’s got it. And then she goes home.

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This could make Brickner — whose animal and animal-and-human photos have graced the covers of internationally distributed textbooks, been splayed across a billboard in the French countryside, and appeared in calendars as well as  National Geographic Kids — one of the world’s fastest or slowest photographers, depending on where you catch her in the creative process. 

But what the mother of six revels in is: “Ohmygawd! How’d you get that photo?”

The Central West End resident’s devotion to photography, she says, dates back 25 years to the day she awoke thinking: “People should stop killing each other.” 

From there, a “little teeny-weeny bit of research” led her to formulate what she figured might be lodged in some perpetrators’ heads: “You don’t look like me, so you should be dead.”

Brickner next postulated: Who or what doesn’t look like us, but provokes no anger?

“That led me to animals,” says Brickner, a graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, whose alums include U.S poet laureate and Washington University professor Howard Nemerov, and best-selling author Belva Plain.

With her camera, Brickner went into her backyard and photographed butterflies, praying mantises and dragonflies. 

It would be getting ahead of the story to mention that years later, Brickner traveled to Malaysia, Indonesia and Holland to photograph their dragonflies; and that once, in Nairobi, Kenya, she nixed a photo safari in order to “hang out,” at ground level in the hotel garden, where she photographed a “pink, I mean pink/pink praying mantis, hanging upside down and looking into the camera!”

While the passion was always there, Brickner’s initial results were technically awful, blurry and provoking no “infinitesimal perception shift” from “Here’s something that looks like me, doing her own thing” to “I shouldn’t bother — or feel anger toward — things that don’t look like me.”

Despite her initially flawed results at taking photos, Brickner got hooked on photography, vowing to become not just competent, but “drop-dead good.” 

Though working full time for an agency that managed teachers’ pension plans, she made time to meet local treasure Chuck Dresner, who was a photographer for the St. Louis Zoo for 18 years (Dresner died in 2005).

In far gentler tones that she would have used, Brickner recalls, he critiqued her work and cautioned her to stop amputating animals’ appendages from her pictures.

Meanwhile, Brickner kept visiting Schiller’s Camera shop in St. Louis, asking questions and buying how-to books.

At one point, she took a weeklong workshop in Michigan, ruining her camera body on the way by stowing in her bag an ice-cream cone that a flight attendant would not permit onboard after a stopover. The workshop instructor took pity, lending her a camera body. 

But about her technique, he showed little mercy. Get a better lens and take photos every day for two years, he said.

She complied. And because praying mantises didn’t pay her, she began shooting events for local publications.

One career milestone came in the late 1990s when one of Brickner’s offspring spotted a book co-authored by Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist, ethologist (one who studies animal behaviors in natural environments) and faculty member at Emory University in Atlanta. 

The book was about bonobos, an endangered great ape species that shares 98 percent of human DNA and is considered one of mankind’s closest living relatives. Brickner was furious. 

“Why had I not heard of bonobos?” she wondered. “I’m smart. And if I haven’t heard of them, neither has anybody else.” 

What became more than a decade–long quest to heighten awareness of bonobos took shape. Bonobos, as she learned, are matriarchal and peaceful. Like humans, their sexuality is for more than reproduction; it’s also a tension-reliever, bond and source of pleasure. 

The zoo here does not have bonobos. Undeterred, Brickner drove or flew to zoos from San Diego to Milwaukee and Jacksonville, Fla. With a studbook lent to her by an animal keeper, she traced bonobo lineage.

After introducing herself to zookeepers, Brickner would spend hours awaiting “the” shot of bonobos romping, nursing and laughing, once one even using twine to dislodge something between its teeth. 

Her photo of bonobo Vic at the Milwaukee County Zoo, eyes wide open as if having a heart-to-heart with a red-hatted little boy on the other side of a clear partition, became a signature image. De Waal, the famed primatologist, chose it for the cover of one of his 2014 book “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.”

Brickner first saw bonobo Lucy, then age 1, at the Jacksonville zoo. When Lucy was transferred to La Vallée des Singes, a primate park in Romagne, France, about 200 miles west of Paris, Brickner went there, too.

“How could I not?” she asks, as if further explanation for digging again into her savings was needed. 

Brickner traveled to France twice, in fact, the last time 18 months ago, to photograph Lucy and her baby girl Yuli. The primate park there uses one of her mother/daughter images on billboards and posters. 

What’s left for Brickner to accomplish? She’s already archived her family’s papers. She has published 40 books, including 10 paperback books of her photos, all available on Amazon.com, and her recently self-published book, “Subliminal Nuances of Animal Behavior.” 

Still, her creative juices are pumping. To be able to carry her 400 millimeter/f2.8 lens, camera and tripod, she walks daily.

From time to time, she photographs weddings and other events. In organized fashion and with a PowerPoint presentation, she also talks to groups about her animal photos. 

And above all, she continues taking “photos that put a smile on somebody’s face. I can do that.”

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