Nick Brandt has vastly expanded and redefined the artistic reach of nature photography. In 1995, Brandt went to Tanzania to direct a music video for Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song.” He was deeply moved by the grandeur and variety of wildlife he witnessed there. Frustrated with filmmaking’s systemic hurdles to creativity, he transformed himself into a world-class photographer committed to capturing the vanishing herds that roam the 2-million-acre Amboseli ecosystem, which straddles Kenya and Tanzania. During a 16-year odyssey of patiently tracking and disarming the animals, in an ever-darkening arc of fatalism, he created a trilogy of books whose titles form the sentence On This Earth / A Shadow Falls / Across the Ravaged Land (including an introduction by Jane Goodall). At first succumbing to an idyllic vision of an enchanted natural kingdom, Brandt soon discovered that the animals were being annihilated by poachers catering to an insatiable demand (particularly from Asia) for ivory, hides, and various parts of animals superstitiously thought to have medicinal properties. There was also a growing appetite for bush meat to augment the local diet. As his images grew into lamentations on the killing of creatures he had come to love as individuals (mature elephants slaughtered mere weeks after he had shot them), the stark terrain and moody atmosphere that he had always favored seemed ever more apt.
When viewed at the daunting scale intended, these portraits of sentient beings, as Brandt likes to think of them, inspire a visceral appreciation of the megafauna that few other photographers have achieved. My first encounter with Brandt’s work was an enormous photograph of a 49-year-old elephant named Igor, serenely drinking from a body of muddy water on a vacant plain, viewed head on. The pathos of this gentle giant (who we’re told was butchered soon after) is more than enough to evoke emotions ranging from adoration to rage and revulsion. Five years ago, Brandt decided that he had to do something about the devastation that seemed to be accelerating in front of his camera. He co-founded, with conservationist Richard Bonham, the Big Life Foundation, initially funded by a devoted collector of his work. They convinced the local population that their wildlife was far more valuable alive, in the service of ecotourism, than decimated for a foreign market. Gradually, they amassed a network of over 300 rangers who were able, with the cooperation of the community, to arrest so many poachers that the crimes were dramatically reduced.
Still, Brandt wanted to produce a more powerful artistic statement about the enormity of the “continent-wide apocalypse” he sees as the only mass atrocity against the animal world that might still be addressed before it’s too late. For his most recent series, Inherit the Dust, he again crisscrossed his beloved East African zone, this time selecting sites that were particularly grim examples of the encroachment of civilization into the animals’ habitats. It was not only rapacious poachers who threatened their existence, he says; it was “just too many of us.” The problem had also become an environmental one, where virgin territory was disappearing in vast swaths. Using photographs from his earlier rounds, blown up into large-scale panels and placed amid dumping grounds, factories, quarries, and urban desolation, Brandt spliced together opposing realities to drive home the grievous ruination of Africa’s natural beauty. It was the sacred confronted by the profane. And it perfectly suited his temperament. “I’m a bit of a miserable bugger. I’m prone to being negative and melancholic but also idealistic and determined. It’s not surprising that there’s so much melancholia in the photographs.”
The panel series was a departure from Brandt’s previous work in at least two ways. Its format was panoramic, epic enough to contain the photo-in-photo objective and its surrounding landscape as an immersive experience — typically using up to four 6-by-7 negatives stitched together. And its conception was constructive rather than receptive. Instead of biding time and vigilance until targeted wildlife wandered into an opportune tableau, Brandt actively designed the images. The man-made (indeed, man-violated) vistas were met with his man-formed compositions. In fact, he reveled in regaining the sort of creative control he had taken for granted as a filmmaker, by staging shots born of imagination in active play with happenstance. The giraffe whose portrait he’d once rejected as too distracted was now an ideal actor, in a refreshed context, next to the echoing cranes he appeared to be absorbed by. Brandt’s beloved beasts were now cast as sympathetic witnesses, inciting deeper empathy. In another image, a baby elephant is partly hidden behind her mother on the panel that was erected beside monstrous quarry trucks. Originally dismissed by Brandt as an incomplete family portrait, it now resonates as a vulnerable creature cowering before a ravaging onslaught.
Born in Britain and currently residing in Southern California, Brandt cites various renowned photographers as inspirational. He sees his work as akin to the probing black-and-white portraits of Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, and Richard Avedon — complex personalities captured against minimalist backdrops. “I love the strong graphic power of black and white, where the elements are reduced to those shapes without the distraction of color. It has that more timeless quality that seems more appropriate with the work that I’ve done so far.” Edward Steichen’s early pictorialism informed some of his initial photographs. And Edward Curtis’s chronicling of the vanishing world of Native Americans is a distant echo of his life’s mission in Africa. As artfully conceived as his images are, though, Brandt insists he’s not after “visual hagiography” that strives for an implied bestial nobility. “It’s not about their beauty. Yes, I might see the Christy Turlington version of a lion, but I will also shoot a blind old buffalo.” It’s as much about the natural light, a fugitive luminosity, in each location, that paints the right ambience at the moment his ever rarer prey become magic. But finally, it’s about taking a tireless stand against a grave, irreplaceable loss to humankind.
Nick Brandt: On This Earth, A Shadow Falls Across the Ravaged Land (Abrams). Selections from Nick Brandt: Inherit The Dust (DAP) is on view at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles through May 14. Information on the Big Life Foundation can found, and contributions made, at www.biglife.org.
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