“I’m headed to Florida right now to photograph a guy with a cougar,” Vince Musi says. He’s working on a piece for National Geographic on people with exotic pets, and the cougar guy is one of his latest subjects. Before that, it was someone with a capybara, the world’s largest rodent, in the Midwest. “I was in a swimming pool with this thing. It’s like taking a bath with a 125-pound rat.”

In other words, while being a photographer for one of the world’s greatest magazines is always interesting, isn’t exactly glamorous. “I’ve been peed on, pooped on, bitten, and run over by pretty much everything you can think of,” he says. But Musi still counts himself very lucky, rat baths and all — he’s known he wanted to work for National Geographic since he was a kid. Since starting with the magazine in 1993, he’s covered animal cognition, domestication, mummies in Sicily (where he caught a respiratory infection that doctors told him seemed to be the King Tut virus, an ancient pathogen found in crypts), and portraits of big cats.

Despite his obvious talent in capturing our four-legged friends, Musi insists he was never an animal person. He first became interested in them when he bought a house here in the Lowcountry. “Everyone thought it was haunted, but it turned out that a lot of critters were living there,” he says. He hired a guy to come and trap the squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons — like he said, it was a lot of critters — that were living in the house, and the two of them struck up a friendship. That gave Musi a kind of gateway into thinking about animals differently. “There’s a real beauty to these animals, and that’s what we’re trying to capture,” he says.

And capture it he does. Whether it’s a feral cat, a pig in an armchair, or a dolphin, Musi’s pictures are the kind that make you stop what you’re doing and really look closely at the personality, intelligence — whatever you want to call it — inside his subject’s body.

This is especially true of his big cat portraits, which offer an intimate, up-close view of captive members of the eight big cat species: the lion, tiger, cheetah, leopard, clouded leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and puma or cougar. They’re ground-breaking photos in more ways than one. Musi wanted to shoot the cats photo-shoot style, with the type of lights and equipment you might see on a fashion shoot. “No one had really asked to do that before,” he says. “I knew that once they put the lights on them they’d be just striking. We wanted to bring that Vanity Fair look.”

While Musi spends plenty of his time on the road seeking out new subjects, he’s got a Lowcountry project in the works, too. I’ve been photographing the ACE Basin for seven years,” he says. “Every time I get going on it the magazine puts me on another project. But I hope it’ll make it in there soon.”

See Musi’s work on his website, vincentjmusi.com.

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