One week ago, National Geographic photographer Steve Winter posted a picture of L.A.’s elusive cougar, P22, to his Instagram account. The photo was taken while Winter was on assignment for the magazine’s 2013 feature on mountain lions, which turned the spotlight on L.A. and the various species of wildlife in our own Griffith Park. Two years later, his images have bolstered the movement to get an overpass built over the 101, an effort that would allow for more cougars to cross the freeway safely and expand their currently inbred genetic pool. Winter took a moment out of his Walter Mitty-esque schedule (he’s currently photographing leopards in Mumbai) to talk with us about what it takes to get the perfect shot and the secret lives of L.A.’s fauna.
You have built a career on photographing much larger, scarier cats for National Geographic—although personally, I find mountain lions scary. How was the challenge of shooting in Griffith Park different from shooting in wilder areas?
All my work in the middle of nowhere helped when thinking about the fact that I needed to get an image of a cougar in an urban setting. I first started in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and that didn’t pan out. I went to a mountain lion meeting in Bozeman, Montana, where I met L.A. wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich. I told him, ‘Jeff, I really need to get this picture. Do any of the cats in the Santa Monica Mountains walk into suburban or urban areas?’ because I had heard there used to be a cat that would walk onto Cher’s property. But Jeff said no, that they’re smart cats—they’ll go into urban areas at night, but if they don’t see any prey, they’ll turn around and come back.
After he said this, I had said to him jokingly—but never really jokingly— wouldn’t it be great to get a picture of a mountain lion with the Hollywood sign? He later told me he thought I was crazy, but he was being polite, so he said, “Well it would, except that there are no cougars or mountain lions in Griffith Park.” I told him to let me know if something changed. Eight months later, I was in the dentist’s chair, and my phone vibrates: it’s a text from Jeff saying ‘Call me now.’ He said that there was a bobcat study being done with remote cameras in Griffith Park. There’s a hill with a cross on it on the other side of the 101, and there was a remote camera right by that cross—the beginning of Griffith Park. And boom: they got a picture of a mountain lion. That’s how it all started.
What was your ultimate goal with this shot?
I was visualizing two things: Getting a picture of a cougar with L.A. in the background and [having the image] speak to everyone around the world. City lights say ‘city lights,’ but they don’t say ‘L.A.’—everyone recognizes the Hollywood sign. Those were my goals, and we got both of them, but it took me 15 months to get that picture and to figure out what trail that cat walks on. Nobody had seen the P22, so figuring out where to put these cameras was hard. Griffith Park is not that big, and there aren’t that many trails. There are even fewer where you can see the Hollywood sign or where you can see L.A., especially from the height of a cat. So figuring out where I could get the shot and where the cameras wouldn’t get stolen was a big issue.
You set up four cameras and three of the four were stolen, correct?
Yeah, but I had already gotten the picture, so that was fine. It was unfortunate that they were stolen, but whatever. We got it.
What is your process with National Geographic? Do they hold stories until you get an image or do they give you a long lead-time?
I usually have about one and a half to two years because they know whatever I do is going to take that long. Right now I’m working on leopards in Mumbai, and I started a year ago. The story goes to bed at the end of July. It takes that long because I don’t want to show a picture of leopards that everyone has seen; I need to show something like P22 under the Hollywood sign. And we got that. We’ve got leopards in Mumbai that are going to blow people away.
If someone sees something in a natural setting they can understand that it is real. Someone e-mailed me the other day from some TV thing and thought my bobcat image on Instagram looked Photoshopped. We don’t use Photoshop at National Geographic. We can’t change anything in our images. That camera with the bobcat was set up because Jeff had seen tracks on the trail behind the zoo. I was running out of places to put cameras, so we placed one there. The first night, the lights of the camera weren’t functioning properly, and [P22] came by. We got a decent picture, but it wasn’t great. Then we got the picture of the bobcat later on, and it was perfect because it was at rush hour.
So the initial picture you got of P22 wasn’t up to your standards?
Yeah. My editor was like, ‘You got it!’ And I was like, ‘It sucks!’ We were having some issues trying to get everything done—I was leaving the next day, and the way I lit it, I didn’t like it. I went back and completely redid the lighting. But we knew he was exactly where I wanted him in the frame. I don’t crop my photos or anything. I don’t mess with them. I want it to be like it is. In the end, you could put a photo of a mountain lion in front of the Hollywood sign using Photoshop, but how about me getting it without doing anything, just a lot of hard work?
What do you think your image of P22 achieved?
It helped people to understand that these cats are in trouble genetically. They need a way to move across the 101 because they’re inbred. The reason P22 left the Santa Monica Mountains was to find his own territory. He has no mate, but he has plenty of food. Does he want to stay there? It’s not for me to say, but hopefully someday there will be an overpass. What we need to do is to get more people involved with the SAMO Fund, which is helping to move a wildlife bridge forward.
I hear that you’re partnering with that effort.
Oh yeah. This all started because of the photograph. Some people know and care that there are cougars in the Santa Monicas, but it’s a very small percentage because visually, you have nothing to see. You have a stock photo of a mountain lion at a zoo. When you have a picture like P22 at the Hollywood sign, people can grab ahold of that. I want my photographs to make a difference. This is making a difference because it’s galvanizing the community to want to give these animals a future. This overpass will give them a future.
Was this the first assignment you had ever done in L.A.?
I hadn’t worked in the U.S. for 20 years before I did mountain lions. Then I went and worked with leopards in Mumbai, and I had the training I needed to show an animal using these remote cameras that are only shooting at night.
What kind of camera equipment do you use? Are you pulling the trigger from a removed location or are they equipped with motion sensors?
It was just a regular DSLR. I was using a Canon camera with a Canon lens. You have to find a landscape—a location you would want to photograph anyway. And then I use an infrared beam in that landscape that I compose. In fact, I had to have my assistant [mimic] the height of P22 so that I could adjust the height of the camera. We had to figure out exactly where that beam would be broken. Once the beam is broken for a split second, the first photograph is taken. Compositionally, that first picture is how I envisioned it; however I composed that first frame is the way I composed it for the background, for the cat, for everything. Then I set those cameras up and leave them. If it took me 15 months to get P22 under the Hollywood sign, no one is waiting around for that to happen. And it worked.
What surprised you about this job?
What primarily surprised me about P22 and bobcats is that they are very adaptable. They can live amongst us, and we maybe don’t see them or they don’t cause any trouble. They have no desire to interact with humans. That’s what we learn: we can coexist with this wildlife without a problem.
Would you want to shoot here again?
I would love to—to me this is just the beginning. There are [images] I didn’t’ get that I would always want to get, like the cats walking on hills above Malibu where you can see Santa Monica and the bay in the distance. And I’d want to come out and surf more.