Stand­ing on the edge of leg­end

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Dou­glas Fair­field

One can never have enough ele­phants, or so it ap­pears, given the re­cent pub­li­ca­tion of two cof­fee-ta­ble books de­pict­ing th­ese mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures: Walk­ing Thun­der: In the Foot­steps of the African Ele­phant by Cyril Christo and his wife, Marie Wilkin­son (Mer­rell, 2009), and A Shadow Falls (Abrams, 2009) by Cal­i­for­nia pho­tog­ra­pher Nick Brandt. The first book might seem to have too ob­vi­ous a ti­tle, un­til you hear know the story told among the Turkana peo­ple of north­ern Kenya and re­lated to Christo andWilkin­son by a tribal medicine man. The mere sight of an ele­phant is a sign from God that rain will fall, thus link­ing ele­phants with the di­vine in Turkana be­liefs. The Turkana leg­end holds that God and Satan once fought in the midst of thun­der and light­ning that rat­tled the Earth. God called upon the ele­phant to rep­re­sent him in bat­tle. The ele­phant’s dis­tinct and pow­er­ful call si­lenced the thun­der and, in turn, Satan; where­upon the ele­phant con­tin­ued to walk the Earth in the ser­vice of God.

This is one of many sto­ries shared by Christo, who picked them up in his en­coun­ters with in­dige­nous peo­ples of Africa dur­ing var­i­ous so­journs to the con­ti­nent beginning in 1998. An­other tale, as handed down by the Ogiek— con­sid­ered to be the first mi­gra­tory hun­ters of Kenya— was that they were once al­lied with the ele­phants. The Ogiek be­lieve their an­ces­tors drank ele­phant milk in times of drought and learned to boil seeds from the olerondo tree to pro­duce por­ridge by ob­serv­ing the ele­phants gorg­ing them­selves on the tree’s fruit. And part of the ini­ti­a­tion into man­hood for the bush­men of Botswana is for a boy to snatch a sin­gle hair from an ele­phant’s tail.

Christo ac­knowl­edges the ele­phant’s re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance in other cul­tures, in­clud­ing the ele­phant de­ity Ganesh in Hin­duism and the use by Bud­dhist monks in Ti­bet of horns that im­i­tate the ele­phant’s call, sym­bol­iz­ing its power. He also re­minds us that the killing of ele­phants be­gan in an­cient times— cit­ing the Egyp­tians, Greeks, and Ro­mans, who used ivory to pro­duce lux­ury items, in­clud­ing ev­ery­thing from “combs to chess pieces to stat­uettes.” Th­ese prac­tices con­tinue to­day, in re­sponse to the de­mands of the black mar­ket.

The pho­to­graphs in Walk­ing Thun­der— in­ter­spersed with poignant quotes about ele­phants from peo­ple as dif­fer­ent from one an­other as Pliny the Elder and Isak Di­ne­sen— present the an­i­mals in all their glory: eat­ing, bathing, preen­ing, play­ing, rest­ing, watch­ing, and walk­ing to their next des­ti­na­tion. The im­ages are taken from afar and from as close as the an­i­mals would al­low, and all are done in gritty black-and-white, con­vey­ing the im­me­di­acy of pho­to­jour­nal­ism. The pic­tures do not nec­es­sar­ily bring any­thing new to the port­fo­lio of wildlife photography, ex­cept to reaf­firm the glo­ri­ous na­ture of th­ese crea­tures and their en­dur­ing, en­dear­ing spirit. In one par­tic­u­lar im­age, the pho­tog­ra­phers cap­ture a lone bull ele­phant in full pro­file, with Mount Kil­i­man­jaro in the dis­tance. The shape and con­tour of the ele­phant’s body echo those of the moun­tain, while its length spans the en­tire width of Kil­i­man­jaro. Leav­ing aside any al­le­gor­i­cal

ref­er­ences be­tween the an­i­mal’s sus­tained pres­ence in the world and that of the an­cient moun­tain, the ele­phant is shown mat­ter-of-fact in its own el­e­ment, un­ques­tion­ably a vi­tal part of the nat­u­ral land­scape.

A Shadow Falls is the sec­ond in a planned tril­ogy of books by Brandt — the first be­ing On This Earth, pub­lished in 2005— that show­cases the beauty and majesty of African wildlife, among which the ele­phant is but one mem­ber of an ex­tended fam­ily. Some of the most revered an­i­mals that have de­fined Africa for cen­turies are fea­tured along­side the ele­phants in Brandt’s work, in­clud­ing lions, chee­tahs, leop­ards, wilde­beests, wa­ter buf­falo, rhi­nos, ze­bras, and the go­rilla.

Al­though the un­der­ly­ing mes­sage is the same from all the pho­tog­ra­phers— that is, the im­por­tance of stop­ping the killing of African wildlife and slow­ing the in­tru­sion of in­dus­try and new hous­ing de­vel­op­ments in an­i­mals’ nat­u­ral habi­tats— the aes­thetic of Lon­don-born Brandt is markedly dif­fer­ent from that of Christo and Wilkin­son. Rem­i­nis­cent of Ed­ward S. Cur­tis’ ro­man­tic, gold-toned im­ages of Na­tive Amer­i­cans at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, Brandt’s sepia-toned pho­to­graphs evoke a sense of van­ish­ing species. Time­less and of­ten oth­er­worldly-looking, the an­i­mals in Brandt’s pho­tos are

not so much cap­tured in pic­tures as they are in­di­vid­u­als and groups ap­pear­ing in por­traits.

Buf­falo Blind in One Eye Rest­ing dis­plays in iso­lated close-up a time-scarred wa­ter buf­falo fac­ing the cam­era. Its sweep­ing, curvi­lin­ear rack of horns spans the width of the pic­ture frame. Its low­ered head and non-threat­en­ing stance sug­gests a long and chal­leng­ing life. In ma­nip­u­lat­ing the im­age to look like a chem­i­cally stained 19th-cen­tury al­bu­men print, Brandt al­ludes to a past time as well as an, at best, un­cer­tain fu­ture for th­ese beasts.

In a lineup re­sem­bling any num­ber of fam­ily por­traits organized by a pho­tog­ra­pher, Ele­phant Five show­cases an en­sem­ble of ele­phants, in­clud­ing a very young calf, stand­ing in place as if wait­ing for the click of the shut­ter. In a straight­for­ward ap­proach, Brandt of­fers each an­i­mal’s dis­tinct per­son­al­ity, as well as their fa­mil­ial bond.

In or­der to get such re­sults, Brandt has learned to be pa­tient. “It can take weeks to get a pho­to­graph,” he writes. “Ninety-nine per­cent of the time, I’m just wait­ing. Wait­ing all day for a pride of sleep­ing lions to wake up (chances are that they won’t). Wait­ing for a herd of ele­phants to stop eat­ing and emerge from the bushes into the open (again, chances are that they won’t). But dur­ing th­ese hours, time takes on a kind of peace­ful flow. ... I find my­self strangely happy just to sit near th­ese an­i­mals all day and just wait.” This de­scrip­tion of Brandt’s tech­nique ac­counts for his in­ti­mate pic­tures of an­i­mals, taken without the use of a tele­photo lens.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing es­says by photo his­to­rian Vicki Gold­berg and Aus­tralian philoso­pher Peter Singer— cur­rently pro­fes­sor of bioethics at the Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Cen­ter for Hu­man Val­ues and best known for his book An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion (1975)— place Brandt’s pho­tos in con­text with fine-art photography and within the larger is­sue of an­i­mal preser­va­tion. “Nick Brandt’s pho­to­graphs are elo­quent tes­ti­mony to what we could lose,” com­ments Gold­berg.

Work­ing in and around Kenya’s Am­boseli Na­tional Park, Brandt has, in­deed, wit­nessed a dra­matic change in the an­i­mal pop­u­la­tion in less than 15 years. He writes: “In 1995, I first drove the main road from Nairobi down through south­ern Kenya to Arusha in north­ern Tan­za­nia. Along the way, in com­pletely un­pro­tected ar­eas, I saw gi­raffes, ze­bras, gazelles, im­palas, wilde­beests. A few months ago, just 13 years later, I made the same trip. I didn’t see a sin­gle wild an­i­mal the en­tire four-hour drive.”

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkin­son:

Op­po­site, Nick Brandt:

Kil­i­man­jaro Bull Ele­phant, Am­boseli, Kenya, 2006, gelatin sil­ver print

Ele­phants Walk­ing Through Grass, Am­boseli, Kenya, 2008, archival pig­ment ink print

Nick Brandt: Ele­phant Drink­ing, Am­boseli, Kenya, 2007, archival pig­ment ink print

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkin­son: Bull Ele­phant in Pro­file, Am­boseli, Kenya, 2004, gelatin sil­ver print

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