By Geoff Wittig
The fields of landscape, natural history and wildlife photography frequently (though not exclusively) demonstrate a conservationist ethic. In years past, such work was often intended to spark public interest in preserving wilderness and animal habitat from development. Many prominent wildlife photographers, including Art Wolfe, Franz Lanting, and Tom Mangelsen, explicitly address these concerns in their work.
These books are not like that. To the contrary, they represent a kind of elegy for a world (ecosystem?) of genuinely wild animals that will be gone forever within my childrens' lifetime.
Like many folks of (ahem) a certain age, I grew up with the comforting notion that the extermination of wildlife was a sin of an earlier, less enlightened era. I believed that national parks and wildlife refuges had "solved" the problem and that wild animals would always have a place in the world.
If only this were true. Even in North America, large mammals ("charismatic megafauna") are under intense pressure due to fragmented habitat and climate change. In Africa, the situation is far more dire. Elephant populations have fallen from an estimated 5 or ten million in 1900 to approximately 400,000 in 2000. In unprotected areas, African wildlife is being speedily hunted to extinction. Even the large national parks in East Africa are deteriorating rapidly. From over-browsing by hemmed-in herds of elephants to widespread poaching to the diversion of water resources for livestock, the future of Africa's large mammals looks bleak.
Nick Brandt has spent much of the last decade photographing the great mammals of Africa, from elephants to Cape buffalo to cheetahs. His highly stylized black-and-white images have an immediately recognizable look to them, one that's consistent across a large body of work. Brandt notes that he's aiming for artistic portraits of these vanishing animals, rather than the customary clinical wildlife shots, in an effort to capture something of their essence before they're gone.
Between magazine interviews and posts on a number of websites and blogs, one can glean something about his working methods. He photographs mostly with a Pentax 67 on black-and-white film, and favors much shorter focal lengths than the artillery customarily used for wildlife images. Some of his photographs look like they were shot on infrared film, and many make liberal use of a red filter for dramatically darkened skies. Very shallow depth of field features in many of his animal portraits; he has explicitly denied using a tilt-shift lens or Photoshop to get this effect, coyly claiming to use a '"low-tech" in-camera method. (There's been a lot of on-line speculation about shooting through a de-mounted lens with a slight tilt applied. I suspect Brandt is simply exploiting medium format's intrinsically shallow depth of field, with a touch of Photoshop artistic license thrown in, his protests notwithstanding.) He prints digitally with an inkjet on cotton rag paper.
On This Earth: Photographs from East Africa (here's the U.K. link), published in 2005, is still widely available, and it's probably the best general sample of Nick Brandt's work. It's ideally sized to hold in your hands, with a simple sans serif typeface and decent margins for the photographs. The images are all reproduced on the right hand leaf as varnished duotones on semi-matte paper, nicely conveying the warm chocolate tones and glowing highlights of Brandt's interpretations. The photographs themselves are simply beautiful, and some of them have rightly become icons, including the cover image shown above of a bull elephant on a stark plain casting a shower of dust over himself. A Foreword by Alice Sebold and an introduction by Jane Goodall precede the photographs.
A Shadow Falls, published in September 2009 (U.K. link), is a larger and more luxurious book from a different publisher. However, it employs similarly restrained typopgraphy, design, and layout. The photographic reproductions are quite close to those in the earlier book, though they look just a bit lighter to my eye. Brandt's striking and moody images are again very well served. The larger photographs are printed double-truck across the fold; but they survive the insult, as the spine opens readily to lay flat on your desk or table. It's a bit too big to hold in your hands. Forewords by photography critic Vickie Goldberg and philosopher Peter Singer precede the photographs, as does a heartfelt introduction by Brandt.
There are many striking books of wildlife photography available. Nick Brandt's stand out from the crowd with a sustained interpretive æsthetic and an elegiac tone that hits home.
Peter Beard is about as far away from Nick Brandt as you can get. A trust-fund bon-vivant with a colorful social history, Beard has spent long stretches in Africa since 1955. The End of the Game: The Last Word from Paradise (U.K. link) was first published around 1965, and has been repeatedly revised and reprinted since. It's a curious pastiche of colonial era tall tales, famous hunts, snapshots, old lithographs, hand-written notes and aerial photographs. The typeface is a consciously old-fashioned Monotype Caslon, in between the hand-written notes. If you can get through all the self-indulgent 1960s-style "self expression," however, there's something interesting here. Beard evidently started out in Africa as a youthful lark, but over time came to recognize a calamity in the making. Long before the current wildlife holocaust began to play out in earnest, he saw it coming, and tried to sound an alarm. The "game" in the title refers to Africa's rôle as a playground for wealthy Europeans and Americans, going on Safari to casually massacre elephants and lions for trophies. To his credit, Beard tried to get Western journalists interested. His disgust at a smugly misleading 60 Minutes story in 1980 crackles off the page. The last section is a horrifying collection of aerial photographs of hundreds of elephant skeletons and carcasses. On some pages the images of dead elephants are laid out in a grid, precisely like Bernd and Hilla Becher's "typologies." The photographic reproductions are mediocre at best, and the original images more documentary than artistic. But it's still a fascinating book.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.