“My images are idyllic and romantic, a kind of enchanted Africa. They are my elegy to a world that is steadily, tragically vanishing.” – Nick Brandt
Nick Brandt studied painting and filmmaking at St. Martin’s School of Art in England. In 1992, he moved to California where he directed award willing music videos. He worked with Michael Jackson on “Earth Song” and “Stranger in Moscow.” His collaboration with Moby resulted in the video for “Porcelain.” He also directed videos for Jewel — “Hands” — and XTC’s “Dear God.”
While working in Tanzania on “Earth Song,” he became enthralled with the wildlife and people of Eastern Africa. By 2001, he had grown unhappy because he could not film the feelings he had for the animals and their human counterparts. He decided to create a trilogy of images to memorialize the beauty and magnificence of that part of the continent.
Black & white trilogy
Brandt started with Pentax 6X7 cameras and a pair of lenses, neither one a telephoto. He explained his choice in his writing, “You wouldn’t take a portrait of a human being from a hundred feet away and expect to capture their spirit; you’d move in close.”
He goes on saying, “Aside from using certain absurdly impractical techniques, I do one thing that I believe makes a big difference: I get very, very close to the animals. I don’t use telephoto lenses, as I want to see as much of the sky and landscape as possible to see the animals within the context of their environment. That way, the photos become about the atmosphere of the place as well as the animals.”
Waiting for game
Brandt explained what he wanted in each photograph of these East African animals, “I’m waiting for the moment where the animal seems like they’re posing or where they’ve set themselves into a landscape…”
Animals do not take direction and getting them at the right moment is a waiting game. Fortunately for us, Nick Brandt is a patient man. To get the profile of the lion on the Maasai Mara (opening photo, bottom row, far right) he watched the lion sleep for 17 days under the blue Kenyan sky. Finally a strong wind blew across the grasses and the lion sat up and Nick made his portrait.
His first book, “On This Earth,” was published in 2005. The second, “A Shadow Falls” came out in 2009. The final book was released in 2013 — “Across the Ravaged Land” — which added humans to the narrative. The photograph Ranger with Tusks of Killed Elephant, Amboseli 2011 shows the reason for poaching that has tragically reduced the number of elephants there (opening photo, top left,) is an example of how Brandt included humans.
The three books’ titles form the sentence “On this earth a shadow falls across the ravaged land” a statement that accurately described the crises across Africa as the animal lands are encroached by people and sadly, by poachers killing rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks.
Inherit the Dust (2016)
Nick Brandt’s latest project is fine art work where life sized images of his African animals are blown up to heroic sizes and placed in landscapes ravaged by modern progress. An elephant stands 12 feet high. The prints are placed in industrial scenes like alleyways flowing with sewage, in an freeway underpass and at the rim of a quarry.
Nick shot Inherit the Dust on medium format. For years he had used the Pentax 6X7. He loved working with the waist level viewfinder. The Pentax was great for horizontals but it was very difficult to use the waist level finder for vertical images. Nick discovered the Mamiya RZ67 Pro IID whose back easily rotated from horizontal to vertical allowing him to use his favored waist level finder with either orientation.
Panoramas with film
The 30 photographs in Inherit the Dust were meticulously produced over a period of 4 months. Each of the sections of the 12 foot long print had to painstakingly lined up with the one before it and the one after it then blended into a seamless panorama. Remember, this was done on film not with a digital camera. Find out more about his process in this article in Amateur Photographer.
Photography critic Vicki Goldberg in an article about Inherit the Dust wrote, “Brandt’s astonishing panoramas … are a jolting combination of beauty, decay, and admonishment. The result is an eloquent and complex “J’accuse,” for the people are as victimized by “development” as the animals are. The breadth, detail and incongruity of Brandt’s panoramas suggest a collision between Bruegel and an apocalypse in waiting.”
This Empty World (2019)
Brandt’s latest work is about human encroachment and destruction of the natural world. These photographs are his first venture into color. Each scene is curated with the eye of a cinematic director.
“And being that close to the animals, I get a real sense of intimate connection to them, to that specific animal in front of me. I love the feeling, want the feeling, that they’re almost presenting themselves for a studio portrait.” -Nick Brandt
Read more stories about inspirational photographers in On Photography.