Review: The Nick Brandt Trilogy

This is a retrospective review of Nick Brandt’s three photography books published between 2005 and 2013, where unusually I will consume them all in one sitting. The final chapter arrived on my doorstep today (9 November 2013) and as it’s been several years since I’ve properly looked through the previous two, I want to review the whole backstory before unwrapping the cellophane. This is therefore a stream-of-consciousness blog, written as I explore the books. While there are some images included I have opted not to take shots of the primary photos, partly because I respect Nick’s copyright but mainly because I don’t think photography books should be spoiled by internet-ready third-party re-shoots of books which are expensive to produce and caringly conceived by editor and publisher.

I know I want to re-read the books in sequence because I’ve seen the earlier work, I suppose, and regard it extremely highly – some of most captivating images of African wildlife, some of the most warming, and some of the most cruel. I know to do this also because I know – or assume – the way the story will “end”, because I know what has happened to Africa since 2000 when Nick started shooting. Photography is documentary, and wildlife Africa has seen plenty of change.

The first and second books, On This Earth and A Shadow Falls, rake up 5* reviews all over the place, though I noted earlier this month that Brandt’s website describes the first print of On This Earth as “Poorly printed, small, many underwhelming photos”, an honesty which cheers me in its recognition – uncommon amongst both professional and amateur photographers – that progress and time can change your opinion of your earlier work or decisions. (I don’t think I agree with the judgement, but that’s part of the point of this review)

On This Earth

From the photograph above you’ll note that this book is smaller than the other two – the final chapter is the same height as A Shadow Falls but is an inch or two wider. There is a recognisable trait in the cover which lasts throughout – the black border – it hints that if an image doesn’t fit perfectly to the page, it will sit there and be surrounded, layout subordinate; it will not be scaled up to fit.

The cover image is striking – not just the weightlessness of the dust surrounding the elephant above (but not below, cleaning the shot), but the near-vertical shadow and the dark sky. These are photographic techniques, but there is also a sense of closeness to the elephant – a perspective that evokes an early 20th century portraiture scene, a day at the seaside. (while I’m at it, I note the elephant has a very hairy tail tuft)

Moving through the first pages, there is the sense of a lead-in period, a few OK shots of lion and ostrich, a pretty infrared landscape, but then bang – cheetah on a rock – and where it is really the texture of the rock that draws breath, dappled or shaded as it is in light. The cheetah pose is good with the full tail showing, but it’s the gentle reminder of landscape that lingers.

Pass some more, and page 31 shows a more graphic form – two giraffe, apparently young and parent, caught as opposing shapes in the glimmering heat. Turn a page and a great high key zebra and wildebeest migration shot describes the African plains well, with a few kicks in the dust illustrating movement.

There are plenty of nice portraits of chimpanzees here but I have to confess to having a strange nonchalance toward images of great apes – I am sure one which will dissolve immediately if I encounter them in person – and perhaps the closeness of our species causes me to view photographs of them in a more critical light: a great photograph of a human exhibits something emotionally, something integral, a sense of being. We have learned to derive this, I think, from photographs of other species, particularly elephants where there is an affinity that we start to think we can read, but with apes I think the challenge is harder.

And with elephants we turn to page 41, a stunning idyll, mountains and clouds and a low plain with the whole maternal herd, grazing, staring, tussling in the case of two youngsters, and a smaller one in the background exploring this new world. Though a little overtouched (the bottom vignetting particularly) for my liking, this is a photograph to touch the hearts of many who have been, or want to, visit Africa. It describes the smell, the sensation of being in that new world.

The perspective of the cover shot is repeated at times – page 43 shows a shot of a bull elephant, in what still seems an unusual perspective – something like a 40mm DSLR full frame lens equivalent but ‘filling’ the frame. Brandt is quiet on his equipment, at least in this book.

Another epic graphic shot of giraffe, better than the previous and with so much to explore, is followed by a good sequence of varied shots before you reach the panorama which I remember struck me so long ago, the flat open plains with wide open sky, and an endless train of elephants in Amboseli, viewed from a low, childlike angle. Having travelled to Africa several times I know this isn’t an unusual sighting, but there is a starkness and simplicity in the shot, just dust, air, and mammal. No plants, no grass. The whole image speaks travel born of necessity.

Turning the page just makes me laugh, because it is the same image I love from the previous page, multiplied by ten. It is the “no, that one!” in-joke in a photobook development cycle, the gradual build and the cheeky deceit. Both images are better because of their partner – a slight lift of the eye giving a radically different view. Blink.

There are some unfortunately Instagrammed images which in some cases work fine (topi, in a 19th century quagga-like pose) but otherwise feel like apologies – and this is harsh judgement from me, considering we’re talking 2000-2005 where our knowledge and technical capacity today was barely dreamed of, but I think timeless images evoke something beneath the visual, and they are rightly unusual as a result.

A sea of wildebeest seems familiar but also improbable – no cars? I guess this is taken from a microlight, helicopter or balloon but retains the low angle that keeps it personal. It feels like there is a bygone age to this image, which I hope is just my pessimism about the Mara.

And we end with a slow mix of good wildlife shots – several of which you may have in your collection, I should say, because although they’re good shots and shots which are exciting to the first timer on safari, they are otherwise familiar and ‘typical’ when you return for your second, or third. That’s not to discredit these images – everyone loves their own images because they are X-rays of their own memories – but just to illustrate the vast – and as we share more through the internet and evolve technically, increasing – gap between good and great. On average through the book I might agree with his retrospective assessment, but on the other hand there are some killers here, and history tells us that your first book tends to be a personal affirmation as well as an issuance.

Nick doesn’t say anything in words throughout the book until the afterword, and I will finish by nodding toward one of his remarks:

“I panned my camera across this epic sight, looking for something to meaningfully frame. But it was utterly futile. I never even clicked the shutter.”

A Shadow Falls

The name doesn’t incite hope. I skip over the forewords for now unless written by Brandt – they are individually thoughtful and meaningful in their own right but forewords as a concept are engineered to skew emotion. This time Nick has given an introduction – a follow on from the afterword. It is a clear and concise summary of the balance of wildlife and society in Kenya – “man and animal fighting for their share of ever-diminishing resources”. There is a fatalism in his words, some of which may not be objectively justified (parks can see enormous suffering yet bounce back remarkably quickly; humanity is trying to learn on the job how to manage its immense overinfluence and guardianship of the world and 5-10 year scales are tiny for us to try to learn according to good scientific principles, but either way fast/slow science can be catastrophically impactful to localised species)

There is glamour here – rhino, reflected in water, zebra too. A peaceful introduction. A charismatic male lion (THE charismatic male?) dives from a tree, presumably to immediately fall asleep next to his brother, a behaviour that despite being photographers deep down we really love as it describes their dominance over the food chain so clearly. A touching touch of heads between heavy maned lion and lioness, the eye of the lioness telling the whole story.

Giraffe fight, insofar as they can. The wildebeest shots are more expressive, even more encompassing and vivid, evoking a ‘Heart Of Darkness’ feel (I confess I still haven’t read it).

A windswept lion is immensely striking and more so given the tilt/shift treatment (I will assume physical but perhaps software), although for me this style of photography is susceptible to fashion – I may disagree another night! A later image of lion on the rocks in the Serengeti is perhaps well-known but still executed perfectly, and would be a lovely window sized print to block out the world for when you’re back home in normality.

Sadly the ragged borders come back into play a little, but there are some great low close-ups of elephant, more hazy panorama of elephant herds, and a truly exceptional series of 5 shots at the end which amplify the implicit theme throughout – a slow decline of available resources, a slow thinning of family.

Across The Ravaged Land

The cover of this book speaks to its intent. A human appears for the first time; an animal does not. A white shadow lingers on the empty plains, mourned by a friend. As with the previous books I read Nick’s words.

Dead. The icons of the previous books are dead. Killed by poachers. Dead. In the few years’ gap between books, thirty year old – young? – elephants are killed, ivory hacked off.

We know this well, but it is shattering to see photographic death certificates so soon (and I may not have planned this trilogy binge if I’d known; Brandt perhaps likewise). There is hope – a foundation, a renewed conservation effort in Amboseli, but this is a ‘small’ (2m acres) – magical – place, but perhaps an example leads us all. The shot of rangers with tusks, particularly when compared against the ‘original’ work is immensely saddening but a tremendously powerful depiction of humanity’s strength in minority. (I don’t know if this ‘diptych’ has been properly exhibited online but should merit the attention of In Focus and The Big Picture)

We must try. I was pleased to find Nick mentioning his involvement directing Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” – a song toward I had some tendency toward (likewise Black Or White – it is alarming to learn I was 11 years old when it was released) but which is greatly saturated and deepened through watching the video. It is still a music video, remember, fantastical as it and the (fanatical) media reaction may be, but you can see a commitment and a comprehension in this video that – as he is well aware – lingers (having dabbled in editing, there are a couple of difficult, dramatic cuts in there – see seals)

Geeky thought it may be, I was pleased to finally have some confirmation of the equipment used, and I was even more pleased to find it was close to what I expected – a stupid, arrogant, absolutely perfect medium-format Pentax with a 50mm or 100mm SLR equivalent lens, 10 shots per film, no AF. These facts are irrelevant to the typical buyer of the book or the general public, and while it probably made sense in 2000 it will likely seem overly masochistic in 2013 when a D800 could give you the ‘detail’. He chose the other path, and I agree. You are your boots. Your tracks define you.

He also addresses some of the technical questions thrown up by his work – no Photoshop, film is surprising (agree), infrared is used, aged stains (hmm), and pleasingly the ‘low-tech technique that could never have been achieved with a digital camera or re-created in Photoshop’ that I think describes the tilt/shift image I remarked on earlier. Oooh, Vaseline?

In the first few pages, there is a pride held in the pose of the animals. There is also a – perhaps only perceptive – lack of lustre in the print. A lasting comment. A “genuinely” tender interaction between buffalo (one 1/60 second fragment says nothing about the fragment before or the one after) exemplifies how the low, close perspective tells a different story than the ultrawide or full zoom.

I would often drive away from lion, perhaps even I could find a prime setting for the shot, simply because they do NOTHING during the day and at night it is normally inadvisable to be out, both for the animals’ welfare and as photography/sighting is difficult. However I have great respect for those who wait, and the couple who appear early in the book show tremendous confidence and tenacity, like any new family naively building towards the future.

Brandt must be defined by his elephant shots, like it or not. I haven’t seen anything similar – so personal, so dangerous, so full. A perspective that shows the full elephant, shadow and path included. It’s hard to rate these shots better than his earlier work but ‘Elephant On Bare Earth’ in Amboseli is a magical depiction.

A white page, and you are wrenched back into death. Some photos from this Calcified series will be known having recently been promoted – Brandt is honest in the introductions about having repositioned the dead animals from the beach back to the branches, so Natron isn’t as vehemently noxious as it may appear, but while this is an artistic overlay it is powerful and conveys an odd beauty in death, a structural integrity of the skeleton, a: ‘pretty bird! What? OMG, it’s dead! Urgh! Why?’ Equally it is an interesting vignette into a toxic world where overpolluted local ecosystems lead to mass exterminations – and personally (as a lay person) I consider this to be a much higher risk than species extinction due to global climate change.

Of the series, the media may have adopted the dove but the mousebird to me is most dramatic. I only met my first mousebird properly in June this year, chasing them round Addo and the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The photograph is just as proud and as though nothing had happened. My judgement is a personal matter though; the flamingo is devastating but somehow anomalous when you have seen the seas of pink at Nakuru or (I hear) Bogoria.

There are – purposefully – photographically and editorially galling transitions, which it would be unfair to describe and which set the scene for the latter part of the book. These are striking images, memorable in their accurate depiction but almost objective (this image from WPOTY haunts me in the same way, as it is phenomenally objective but I cannot imagine the wildlife photographer not shaking, mentally or otherwise, while shooting)

The shots of human involvement are important, though for me incomplete – there is great work being done by conservation groups and more importantly with involvement with communities across the continent, in conservancies managed by communities in partnership. These are early days and so hard to capture succinctly in an image, but one would hope there will be evidence in a few years time for a “fourth book” (merely a suggestion to counteract the notion that the trilogy means the end of things) which shows how human involvement can at least marginally improve habitat usage and survival rates – the conservancies are part of this, but critical tourist monitoring in the Mara and Kruger is of high interest (as well as high risk) in order to establish thresholds of danger.

Beyond

I adore photography books. We currently live in a 5th floor flat and if we ever topple in to the river below then I will blame the photography books. Although we have been shooting wildlife since 2004, I count 2009/2010 as the period where we really started to kick in, and Amazon reminds me I bought both of Brandt’s books in early 2010. They are filled with staggering shots – it is only in hindsight, after a lot of work, a lot of equipment, and a lot of learning, that I would agree that some of the shots in the first book are of a ‘lower’ standard – which is unfair, because a normal animal pose can be radically different in a different light. Time-wise, the books can’t have influenced our Kenyan travels but will have influenced our travels in South Africa.

In aggregate, then, this is a journey, a safari, mostly a personal one on the part of the photographer, with the photographs acting as punctuation points, vignettes of an individual who is exploring, and learning, and changing over time. There has been a rapid change in wildlife photography in recent years, an extreme sprint towards technical excellence which sometimes is married with beautiful chance or elegantly planned, painful composition. Most, however, doesn’t work quite as well as it might, and therein the unspoken secret; on any given trip, fewer than 3% of shots might make the pass, even then to be whittled down just a handful which are memorable enough for display. This never signifies a lacklustre expedition, rarely reflects a barren landscape; it instead underlines our respect for the natural world, our desire to show it in its best light, to pinpoint the most emotive, most meaningful, most memorable moments. And these are all subjective qualities, despite the photographer’s best efforts to enact perfection in every other technical aspect of the image; it all still comes down to the unknowable, confusing quality of how another human feels when they look at a monochrome print. All wildlife and nature photographs wish to engender in others a love, a respect, a wonder in the natural world, and yet we never know whether it will work. Even the most staggering of shots will fail to touch a friend, while a “3 star” fast grab lying in the archive might provoke a tear in another. We don’t always know how to ally people to cause, and so it’s sometimes worth trying different angles. I’m not suggesting this is what Brandt sets out to do in these books, but rather that it is a fruitful consequence of his development as a photographer over the course of these travels, that there are different ideas and different perspectives, which might perforate the flow of the books a little but which might also act as catchpoints for people with a different eye to mine.

In the end, if there is one photograph in a collection which sparks silent sadness or which ignites activism in the viewer, then the collection succeeds on that basis alone. The rest is a journey, an exploration of the viewer’s own understanding, own standing in the world, a time to at least feel out the edges of this African vista, to know all that is held within, a journey of questioning and consideration, which erupts when the touchpaper is finally lit.

For me, after all these wonderful monochrome images, that touchpaper is his Elephant Exodus I and II, from Amboseli in 2004. These images unfailingly prompt shivers, and always a grin. They helped power my enchantment with Africa, with the savannah, with our fellow residents on this wondrous, fragile earth. Elephants, rhino, all animals are being persecuted and currently destroyed at a high rate, with a blind efficiency that should remind of the whales. We hunted whales because we needed resource, but also because there were so many of them, the bounty was unstoppable, without end. We learned after that episode that even with today’s science and tools, our vision is always too narrow, and too late. What we see now will continue for a dangerously long period, even if we could flick a switch and change our course immediately. It is difficult to know what to do, when the urgency is not apparent, but small steps will always help; turn a friend, and they will turn another. If anything, we should return to Nick’s original thinking, way back then, in his ominous, knowing title for the trilogy: On this earth a shadow falls across the ravaged land.

As humans, we feel we must do something. At the very least, as a suggestion I hope that Nick won’t mind me quoting his closing words from the first essay:

“Let us begin to let them be.”

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