Nick Brandt can just picture it: ominous clouds sweeping across the sky above dusty, arid plains. And somewhere in there, the face of the wild — whether it’s the look in a lion’s eyes, or sawed-off elephant tusks seized from poachers and now in the hands of rangers.
“I have specific ideas in mind when I go out to photograph,” says Brandt. He captures his black-and-white environmental portraits of East Africa’s endangered animals, and staged scenes of the people trying to protect them, on the grassland savannahs and parched earth, lakes and rocky outcrops at the border of Kenya and Tanzania.
“It’s one of the few places in the world where you can stand and turn 180 degrees and see a mass of different animal species,” he says. He visits for three to five months a year in Amboseli National Park and surrounding areas, thousands of miles from his secluded home in the mountains of Southern California. “I’m always looking to go when it’s as cloudy as possible, because I want the soft, somber, melancholy light of the Northern European climate,” says 48-year-old Brandt, who was born and raised in London. “I don’t like photographing in sun. It lacks atmosphere and distracts from the simple, graphic shapes I want in my work.”
His sharp eye for composition only enhances those shapes. You can see it in a row of giraffes, their necks arced like an open Japanese fan, in his aptly titled “Giraffe Fan” (Aberdares, 2000). In “Cheetah and Cubs” (Masai Mara, 2003), the profiles of two of the siblings and the mother are stacked one above the other as they crouch, sit and stand facing left, while the third cub hunches under the mother’s belly and looks straight ahead. The head-on shot in “Elephant Drinking” (Amboseli, 2007) narrows this mammoth beast down to a V. Intersected triangle shapes, of outstretched ears and angled-out tusks, contrast with horizontal bands of water, land, horizon and a sky smudged with clouds, all tied together by a rich array of grays.
“His skies are amazing — romantic and roiled, many of them,” says Vicki Goldberg, photography critic and author. “You know those clouds are moving, indicating that his subjects, the animals, will also be changing. When he expands the vista, that one, small lion in the distance is like an exclamation point giving both significance and scale. The animal concentrates the landscape and makes us understand the landscape is also a living thing, interacting with the life within it.”
Sarah Hasted, of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery in New York City, comments, “What I love about Nick is that he truly is a photographic artist. He not only elevates this traditional medium, but also surpasses stereotypes. His prints are complicated and simple, traditional and contemporary, at the same time. I’m attracted to the epic quality of his work. It’s cinematic.”
Brandt, formerly a film director, prefers black-and-white film “for that timeless quality. I can’t easily put it into words. There’s something organic, magical and mysterious about it.” Taken with a medium-format Pentax 67II — the camera he’s always used — some of his portraits seem as though they might come from an earlier time, showing animals “that are already long gone, already dead.”
Too many of them are. In the areas Brandt has photographed, poachers chainsaw tusks from live elephants, machine-gun them down or otherwise murder them — at the rate of 35,000-50,000 a year — to supply the demand for ivory in East Asia, which also supports a black market for rhinoceros horns. Giraffes are killed for bush meat; lions, for body parts used in Chinese medicine; leopards, for their pelts. Add in human population growth intruding on their territories, climate change from deforestation, and global warming that’s drying the land — and you wonder whether, too soon, these animals will only exist in photographs.
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2014 issue.