Standing on the edge of legend
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