Re­quiem in photos

Nick Brandt’s homage to the lost an­i­mals of East Africa

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Nick Brandt’s homage to the lost an­i­mals of East Africa

Nick Brandt’s por­traits of African mam­mals, first pub­lished in 2005’s On This Earth: Pho­to­graphs From East Africa, are as­tound­ing for their up­close clar­ity. But in 2014, the pho­tog­ra­pher, alarmed at the dis­ap­pear­ance of an­i­mals be­cause of de­vel­op­ment and poach­ing, de­cided to politi­cize his images. For his new mono­graph, In­herit the Dust (Ed­wynn Houk Edi­tions), he fab­ri­cated huge panels fea­tur­ing his photos of ele­phants, lions, ze­bras, gi­raffes, and other mam­mals; erected the panels at land­fills, con­struc­tion sites, un­der­passes, and quar­ries; and made a se­ries of stun­ning panoramic pho­to­graphs that con­trast present-day waste­lands with images of ghosts.

“It is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to find places in East Africa where the an­i­mals still roam,” he said in an in­ter­view from his home in Cal­i­for­nia’s Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains. “I think a lot of peo­ple have a some­what overly ro­man­tic view of what Africa is like that I think is about 30 years or more out of date. There are so many BBC, Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel doc­u­men­taries — and I’m some­what guilty of this my­self — that give the im­pres­sion of this place of ex­tra­or­di­nary nat­u­ral won­der and a plen­i­tude of an­i­mals. Even as a pes­simist, I have been shocked at the speed that the dev­as­ta­tion has oc­curred over the last 10 years.”

The new pho­to­graphs are dif­fer­ent from his ear­lier images in an­other way: Hu­mans are shown. The panels were in­stalled in places where peo­ple are work­ing or rum­mag­ing for ed­i­ble dis­cards at dumps or liv­ing un­der over­passes. Most of the fig­ures in his panora­mas pay no at­ten­tion to the giant photos of wild an­i­mals. “What I’m try­ing to con­vey is that the peo­ple who are liv­ing in these places are also vic­tims of this en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. It hurts them, it hurts the planet, it hurts all of us. So in the pho­to­graphs they’re ef­fec­tively obliv­i­ous to the panels be­cause it’s in the past. Those an­i­mals are long, long gone.”

Brandt was born in 1964 in Lon­don and stud­ied paint­ing and film at Saint Martin’s School of Art in that city. He is best known for his three-part book se­ries: On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, and Across the Rav­aged Land. Ar­guably his most dra­matic pho­to­graphs are the por­traits he made of ele­phants,

buf­faloes, rhi­nos, and Africa’s big cats. Early on, he con­ceived of, and strove to achieve, a new per­spec­tive on such por­tray­als as he took the work into the realm of fine art. Some of the images look like fash­ion-mag­a­zine ads, but these are wild an­i­mals — at close range. “You wouldn’t use a 500mm lens from 500 feet away to make a por­trait of a hu­man be­ing, so I’m not go­ing to do that with an an­i­mal,” he told Pasatiempo in 2005.

In the In­herit the Dust port­fo­lio (a se­lec­tion of which shows at Photo-eye Gallery in Santa Fe from June 10 to July 23), some images that were not pre­vi­ously pri­or­i­tized now be­come dy­nam­i­cally pithy in a new con­text. One ex­am­ple is an ele­phant group im­age that the pho­tog­ra­pher con­sid­ered of sec­ondary value, be­cause the head of what is surely a cute baby ele­phant is hid­den be­hind the legs of the cen­tral pachy­derm. But when Brandt staged a giant print of this photo at a con­struc­tion site, the calf “looks like he is cow­er­ing un­der his mother, hid­ing from the mon­u­men­tal trucks thun­der­ing by them,” he writes in one of the book’s es­says.

In the new mono­graph, this is a gate­fold im­age ap­prox­i­mately 12 by 36 inches. He cre­ated these panoram­ics by dig­i­tally stitch­ing to­gether images from mul­ti­ple film neg­a­tives. By these means, he presents what he de­scribed as “an enor­mous field of vi­sion, more than what you could get with a panoramic cam­era.” In the case of those huge panels placed in ur­ban­ized lo­cales, he could have con­structed com­pos­ite images in the com­fort of home us­ing Pho­to­shop, but each photo he took — do­ing it the hard way — is en­livened by the el­e­ment of un­pre­dictabil­ity. “I could pick any panorama shoot in this book and hap­pily men­tion some­thing sur­pris­ing that oc­curred in the fi­nal shot that made it bet­ter,” he writes.

For this se­ries, as with the por­trait se­ries, he shot with a Mamiya RZ67, a medium-for­mat film cam­era. He spoke about “the ridicu­lous lengths I’ve gone to” us­ing film in the dig­i­tal age. “It is in­cred­i­bly im­prac­ti­cal. How­ever, dig­i­tal doesn’t turn me on, and film does. I had some truly hor­ren­dous things hap­pen where I’ve had to go back and reshoot. In spite of all that, I will con­tinue for the fore­see­able fu­ture — in black and white, cer­tainly — to shoot film. If I was shoot­ing color I would prob­a­bly switch to dig­i­tal, but I have no plans to shoot color.”

He prob­a­bly didn’t plan to be­come a con­ser­va­tion­ist, but that is es­sen­tially what he’s do­ing with In­herit the Dust. In 2010, he es­tab­lished the Big Life Foun­da­tion with con­ser­va­tion­ist Richard Bon­ham to try to do some­thing about the dev­as­ta­tion of African wildlife. “Richard is a phe­nom­e­nal leader, a gen­eral on the ground in re­la­tion­ships with com­mu­nity and govern­ment bod­ies, and this two-mil­lion-acre area [in Kenya and Tan­za­nia] that we’re fo­cus­ing on has seen a much-di­min­ished in­ci­dence of poach­ing and gen­eral killing of an­i­mals, and that’s be­cause of the sup­port of the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. That is the only true way for­ward.”

Big Life em­ploys 280 rangers and uses 15 ve­hi­cles to pa­trol 2 mil­lion acres of wilder­ness in the Am­boseli-Tsavo ecosys­tem of East Africa. The rangers have made more than a thou­sand ar­rests and have con­fis­cated more than 3,000 weapons and


poach­ing tools. “The rangers are aided by their fam­ily mem­bers, and they are eyes on the ground alert­ing the rangers when they see un­usual peo­ple around,” Brandt said. “And these an­i­mals are in­creas­ingly un­der­stood to be of value, just purely prag­mat­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally.”

The de­struc­tion of Africa’s large mam­mals is hap­pen­ing on sev­eral fronts, among them har­vest­ing for bush meat, habi­tat loss through hu­man ex­pan­sion, and, per­haps most ap­palling, the de­mand from Asian coun­tries for ele­phant and rhino ivory and lion or­gans. “Re­mem­ber that only a few years ago, in stud­ies done by Wild Aid, up to 80 per­cent of the Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion be­lieved that tusks nat­u­rally fell off ele­phants and some nice lit­tle fel­las came along and picked them up,” Brandt said. “Groups like Wild Aid are do­ing an amaz­ing job try­ing to ed­u­cate peo­ple, but there are far, far, far more peo­ple in Asia who are in­ter­ested in own­ing a piece of ivory than there are ele­phants left on Earth. Of course, there are count­less other an­i­mals that are mur­dered for parts of their bod­ies for ridicu­lous medic­i­nal pur­poses. This new book deals with more than all that. It deals with us and the fact that there are too many of us and that we as a species are just smoth­er­ing, suf­fo­cat­ing the nat­u­ral world.”

He and Bon­ham would like to ex­pand the territory pa­trolled by Big Life, but he em­pha­sized that they must be cau­tious. “We have to be very sen­si­ble and pru­dent about how we ex­pand. One of the things I have learned watch­ing other or­ga­ni­za­tions is that you can do far more dam­age if you move into an area and start help­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and then you aban­don them. You’ve cre­ated em­ploy­ment and hope, and then you just go, ‘Sorry, we’ve run out of money,’ and you van­ish.”

Brandt is not sure what he will do next as a pho­tog­ra­pher, but he doesn’t plan to for­get about this cri­sis. “I do con­sider it my life­long mis­sion to high­light and cat­a­log what we are do­ing to the nat­u­ral world and to the an­i­mals of this planet,” he said.

Will he do more of those amaz­ing por­traits of African an­i­mals? “No. I’m done with that,” he said. “It’s all over, fin­ished with. That was that pe­riod of my life. Now I’m do­ing this work, and the next body of work will be some­thing dif­fer­ent again.”


Nick Brandt: In­herit the Dust

Open­ing re­cep­tion 5 p.m. Fri­day, June 10; ex­hi­bi­tion through July 23 Photo-eye Gallery, 541 S. Guadalupe St., 505-988-5152

Nick Brandt: Quarry With Lion, 2014; above, Be­hind the Scenes — Ele­phant panel be­ing erected, 2015

Fac­tory With Rhino, 2014; above, Road Junc­tion With Qumquat & Fam­ily; all images courtesy the artist

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