Nick Brandt has established himself as a powerful new voice in photography who focuses on documenting Africau2019s endangered wildlife, writes David Clark

Image: Giraffe skull, Amboseli National Park, Kenya, 2010.

Brandt juxtaposed the skull against the four giraffes in the background ©

Nick Brandt

For Nick Brandt, photography is both a means

of artistic expression and a way of focusing attention on endangered

species. His beautiful, elegiac and often melancholy photographs are

driven by his passion for animals and his ambition to help save Africa’s

dwindling wildlife population.

He began working in photography

in 2000 after a successful career as a director of commercials and pop

videos. He worked with artists such as Moby, XTC and most famously

Michael Jackson, and he first visited East Africa while filming

Jackson’s Earth Song video. It was the beginning of a passion for this

region and its wildlife that has changed Nick’s life.

‘There is

something profoundly iconic, mythological even, about the animals of

East and southern Africa,’ he wrote in his book On This Earth (2005).

‘There is also something deeply emotionally stirring and affecting about

the plains of Africa – those vast green rolling plains punctuated by

graphically perfect acacia trees under the huge skies. It just gets you.

Gets you in the heart, gets you in the gut.’

Brandt approaches

his subjects from a fine-art perspective. While mainstream wildlife

photographers shoot in colour, his images are black & white; instead

of using digital kit, he chooses a medium-format Pentax 67 II film

camera; and although most of his contemporaries use long telephoto

lenses, Brandt prefers getting closer to the subject using much shorter

lenses.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of his work is that

he completely avoids dramatic animal action shots, such as the chase

and kill. Brandt’s images usually take the form of static and meditative

portraits that show animals as individuals.

‘I want to get a

real sense of intimate connection with each of the animals – with that

specific chimp, that particular lion or elephant in front of me,’ he

wrote in On This Earth. ‘I believe that being that close to the animal

makes a huge difference in the photographer’s ability to reveal its

personality. You wouldn’t take a portrait of a human being with a

telephoto lens from 100 feet away and expect to capture their soul;

you’d move in close.’ In doing this, Brandt invites us to look afresh at

familiar species and to recapture a sense of wonder at how truly

extraordinary they are.

The originality of Brandt’s photographs

has inevitably led to speculation about exactly how they were created.

He uses only three lenses – 55mm, 105mm and 200mm (the latter is

equivalent to around 100mm in 35mm terms). He prefers using Kodak T-Max

100 film, and shoots through heavy ND grad and red filters. After

conventional development, the images are further refined at the

post-capture stage after being scanned into Photoshop.

Although

he uses digital techniques to improve his images through greater shadow

detail and tonal range, he rejects more overt tampering, such as

‘cloning in’ additional animals or replacing skies.

Sometimes

the perfect placing of animals in a scene has led some critics to

question whether his images have been digitally altered. However, Brandt

insists that his photographs result from many hours, days and sometimes

weeks of patiently waiting for all the elements to come together,

rather than using a post-processing quick fix.

Image: Nick shooting on a dried-up lake bed in Africa © Nick Brandt

His

first exhibition, in 2004, followed by On This Earth a year later,

rapidly established Brandt as a major new voice in fine-art photography

(he, however, was extremely unhappy with the book’s printing quality and

has since disowned it). His second collection, A Shadow Falls (2009),

further cemented his reputation, and this was followed by On This Earth,

A Shadow Falls (2010), a collection of the best images from the two

books with greatly improved printing quality.

In 2010, Brandt

started work on the third in his trilogy of books and is currently

around halfway through the project. These images are much darker and

bleaker than those shot in previous years, and reflect Brandt’s growing

anger and despair at the accelerating pace of the destruction of African

wildlife.

Brandt says he was always pessimistic about the

animals’ future, but that after 2008 things deteriorated even further

than he anticipated. For example, according to some experts, the greatly

increased demand for ivory, particularly from China, has resulted in as

much as 10% of the elephant population being killed each year. The

animals killed have included many of the particular elephants featured

in Brandt’s earlier work.

His most recent images include a

photograph of a long line of park rangers holding the tusks of elephants

killed by poachers (a grim update of his earlier photograph of a herd

of elephants walking in line), a giraffe skull in an empty, dried-up

landscape and the calcified remains of dead animals that Brandt has

resurrected in a macabre re-creation of the creatures they once were.

These photographs are a powerful condemnation of our collective failure

to put an end to the destruction of these once-plentiful species.

Brandt’s

belief that urgent action is needed to halt the dramatic decline in

animal numbers led him, in September 2010, to set up the Big Life

Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aims to put an end to

poaching and conserve animals in their natural habitat. Big Life has

financed the hiring of a number of rangers to patrol Amboseli National

Park in Kenya, with the result that many poachers have been arrested. In

fact, the Foundation’s efforts have been so successful that Brandt

plans to extend its area of operation.

‘For me, every creature on

this planet has an equal right to live,’ Brandt wrote in the

introduction to his book, A Shadow Falls. ‘Whether human being,

Serengeti elephant or factory-farm cow. That is why I take these

photographs. I hope that maybe you will see these animals, these

non-humans, in the way that I do – as not so very different from us.’


Image: Cheetah

and cubs, Masai Mara, Kenya, 2003. Brandt photographed the cheetahs

from his Land Rover as they stood together on a rock. He patiently

waited until they were in the perfect position © Nick Brandt

 Biography

  • 1966: Nick Brandt is born in London
  • 1983-85: Studies painting and later film at St Martin’s School of Art, London
  • 1986: Begins directing music videos and commercials
  • 1993: Moves to California, USA, and continues his music video work until 2003
  • 1996:

    While directing the video for Michael Jackson’s Earth Song on location

    in Tanzania, Brandt becomes fascinated with the region
  • 2000: Makes his first serious photographic trip to East Africa, shooting with a Pentax 67 II
  • 2003: Abandons his work as a director and devotes himself to fine-art photography on a full-time basis
  • 2005: Publishes first book, On this Earth
  • 2009: His second book, A Shadow Falls, is published
  • 2010: Sets up the Big Life Foundation, an organisation dedicated to preserving Africa’s wildlife

Books and websites

Books:

To date, Nick Brandt has published two books of new images: On This

Earth (Chronicle Books, 2005) and A Shadow Falls (Abrams, 2009). In

2010, he published On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, which contained the

best 90 images from the first two books. It is available from

www.biglifeeditions.com.

Websites: Brandt’s website is

www.nickbrandt.com and it includes a wide range of his work plus a

selection of press reviews and interviews. The Big Life Foundation

website, which includes the latest news on its conservation projects, is

at www.biglifeafrica.org.

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