Opening Eyes: Nick Brandt on Nature Conservation and Photography
Yes, that’s an elephant in the middle of a dump. No, it’s not Photoshop. It’s one in a series called “Inherit the Dust” by photographer and nature conservationist Nick Brandt, and it’s almost entirely an analog creation.
Before “Inherit the Dust,” Brandt was known for animal portraits he approached in the same way other photographers approach human portraits. To create “Inherit the Dust,” Brandt selected unpublished photos from that period, printed them in California, shipped them to Kenya, constructed their steel and plywood frames on location, and positioned them so they seemed part of the physical surroundings. “And then,” he says, “we waited for days until people settled down and no longer looked at the piece.”
Making “Inherit the Dust” was a long, costly, difficult process, but Brandt was driven by a need to comment on the natural world’s extraordinary speed of destruction. “I go through a lot of Kenya and I'm reminded of India or China,” he says. “What was once Nairobi is now a sprawling megalopolis stretching for dozens and dozens of miles."
The environmental devastation affects everything and everyone, as Brandt shows in “Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back, Your Life Is on Track).” In the far right of the scene, human children sniff glue while the mother elephant seems to observe their condition. The distant billboard reassures people that their life is on track. “It’s a cruel commentary on the impoverishment and misery in the real world below,” says Brandt. “We are all losers. It doesn't matter whether it's Kenya or the USA—there is horrifying corporate and political greed.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Brandt’s photography made him aware of the problems; to address them, he started a conservation organization called Big Life. In the seven years it’s been operating, Big Life has been responsible for hiring roughly 300 rangers to protect two million acres of ecosystem. As a result, says Brandt, “the rate of killing animals has been dramatically reduced.”
Brandt’s photography helped fund Big Life, both indirectly and directly. “I had the luck to have wealthy collectors of my photos who I was able to meet and persuade to donate to get outposts built and rangers hired and patrol vehicles bought. Once notorious long-term poachers were nabbed, that track record had a domino effect in terms of donations. Today, sales of some of my photographs contribute a decent chunk of the budget, but much less than it used to.”
Brandt says you don’t need wealthy donors or a well-known name to make a difference. “Everybody in their own way has a particular skill they can bring to something they care passionately about. Whether it’s in writing or photography or whatever, we can be part of a meaningful dialog about what's unfolding on our beleaguered planet. Even if one is just an incremental cog in the wheel to affect change, it all counts.”
KEEPING IT IN CAMERA
“Wherever possible, I try to do everything in camera,” says Brandt. “Unexpected things happen that take you by surprise,” such as the toddler in “Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back, Your Life Is on Track)” who walked into Brandt’s frame and reaches out toward the life-size panel. “I would have never thought to do that. That's the beauty of doing as much as possible in camera, although you spend way more money to achieve it.”
As the behind-the-scenes video demonstrates, Photoshop does come into play, but only when Brandt is ready to stitch together 6"x7" negatives developed from medium-format black-and-white film. The result is an enormous panorama with extraordinary detail. “I can't tell whether an image works until I've made a large print of it—at least 40 inches by 80 inches,” Brandt says. “In a museum show, they may be 60 inches by 140 inches. That's where having a panorama made from multiple negatives pays off.”
Although showings of the “Inherit the Dust” series are scheduled into at least 2019, Brandt is already immersed in bringing a new concept to life. Beyond hinting at its scope and complexity—“Compared to the new series, ’Inherit the Dust’ was like a really nice school project,” he says—Brandt won’t reveal specifics. He will say that it is in color and captured at night with a medium-format digital camera.
Despite this turn to digital, Brandt’s not choosing the easy route. “Technologically, you can now run video and pluck any frame you like,” he says, “but that diminishes the glorious concept of the decisive moment, which has existed in photography for a century. You have to work harder now to create something different. I only embark on a new project if I feel it's never been done before. I like going into each new project scared and excited. if I'm not, something is wrong.”