Photo Insight with Jim Brandenburg – Mont Saint-Michel, France

June 26, 2013

Photo Insight with Jim Brandenburg

For more than 30 years, Jim Brandenburg travelled the world as a photographer with National Geographic magazine. His work has been published in The New York Times, Life and Time, among others, and he has won numerous awards, including Kodak Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He is the chair of this year’s competition. Every month Jim will share the story behind one of his nature images

Some readers may be familiar with the location in which this image was taken, but many people in Britain will not know where it is. This is surprising because it is one of France’s most recognisable landmarks and as a tourist destination is second only to the Eiffel Tower in popularity. The place is called Mont Saint-Michel, which is a rocky island in Normandy. It’s actually listed as a World Heritage Site and is visited by around three million people a year. The building you see is a cathedral that dates back to the 1200s. It’s a truly impressive piece of architecture, yet few of my British friends have ever seen it. This is interesting because it’s almost next door to the UK.

I’m actually working on a wildlife movie project around Mont Saint-Michel at the moment. I was given permission by the French government to place nesting boxes for peregrine falcons in the area. I’m the first person to do that. The falcons will begin nesting for the first time this spring and I’ll be able to capture the event in my movie. I also look at some of the other wildlife that lives around the island, such as the sheep you see in this image.

The photograph was my earliest attempt at taking an infrared image and was achieved by placing a filter over the optic. The problem was that the filter was so dense – you couldn’t even see through it – that I had to compose the shot with a lot of guesswork. That made the job of making a pan-stitched image particularly difficult and it took a few attempts to get it right. These days I use a camera that has infrared built directly onto the sensor. This makes life so much easier because I can actually see what I’m trying to compose.

One of the magical things about photography is that it enables us to see things in ways that the naked eye can’t. When I first started out in photography, the first lenses I bought for my SLR were a 28mm and 300mm. They both operated at the extremes of lens capability and allowed me to see the world in ways that I, as a person, could not. That’s why I enjoy shooting infrared imagery. Many animals will see the world in different shades and colours. Interestingly, many insects see the world in infrared. There are so many different forms of light in the world, and photography allows us to explore them.

I would also say that I love the way infrared depicts foliage. It renders green things pure white and offers amazing tonality. The sky goes black in infrared and that’s a strong visual element. I spent a good part of my career shooting in black & white, and in many ways shooting in infrared takes me back to those days. It’s a romantic way of working that I really enjoy.

People think of me as a wilderness photographer, particularly in North America, where I live. That’s not surprising, as I was brought up in that kind of environment. However, in most of Europe there is virtually no wilderness. I’ve worked in Europe fairly intensely these past few years, and it’s a place I love to visit and work. I have an obsession with the kinds of landscapes that I find there. I particularly like places where people have made a strong impression. I’m not saying I’m bored with the North American wilderness, but I’m intrigued by heritage. We have very little heritage in America, so to explore these kinds of locations is very interesting for me. So, while most Europeans love to come to America to photograph the wilderness, I come to Europe to photograph the past – places like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, where you can drink in the history and atmosphere. If ever you meet an Anglophile or Francophile, that’s the explanation you’ll get.

What I’m particularly interested in is landscapes that have seen man-made intervention, but where animals live too. I like the fact that a place can be absolutely saturated with history, yet be surrounded by animals.

While it can often be difficult to explain a personal photographic vision, I can expand on something that I’ve hinted at in previous Photo Insights. I grew up in Minnesota among the prairie lands. It’s a location with hardly any trees, which is why I tend to favour images that have a distinct lack of trees. I like simplicity and minimalism in my work. It’s a consistent theme, particularly in those images where I’m focusing on the landscape as well as the animal subjects.

You’ll see that this photograph of Mont Saint-Michel is a very graphic image. There is the curve of the water, the line of sheep and the triangular shape of the architecture against the horizon.

I’ve always tried to stay true to my own particular way of seeing things. I’ll never go into a shoot with a visual agenda in mind as I can only shoot things as I see them. However, I have been told time and again by editors that I always tend to shoot European locations with an outsider’s eye. That should be obvious as I’m a North American photographer, but it’s strange to hear it said to me as it has never been intentional. I guess I just want to show people these places from a fresh angle, which comes naturally to me. Mont Saint-Michel has been shot a million times. If you type its name in Google, so many images appear that you almost feel like you’re drowning. However, I don’t think many have been shot like this one. It’s not that I’m bragging, it’s just that I don’t recall seeing the location being treated in this way before.

Jim Brandenburg was talking to Oliver Atwell

To see more of Jim’s images visit

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