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.