Los Angeles Times

Oct 21, 2013

by Barbara Davidson

Nick Brandt photographs exclusively in Africa, where since 2001 he has been working on a last testament to wild animals and wild places. The first two volumes of the trilogy were recently combined and published together as “On This Earth, A Shadow Falls.” Brandt’s work-currently on display through Nov. 2, 2013 at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles-has been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe. In 2010, he founded Big Life Foundation to help preserve critical ecosystems in Kenya and Tanzania. Born and raised in England, he lives in the mountains of Southern California.

Q: How did your career in photography begin?

A: The animals came first. The photography second. It was the best medium for me to express my feelings about animals, nature and the environment.


Q: What inspired your love of wild animals and East Africa?

A: There is something profoundly iconic, mythological even, about the animals and landscapes of East Africa. There is also something deeply, emotionally stirring and affecting about those vast green rolling plains under the huge skies. It just affects me, as I think it almost inevitably does many people, in a very fundamental, possibly primordial way.


Q: Your most recent book, “On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across the Ravaged Land” is the final volume in your trilogy memorializing the disappearing natural grandeur of  East Africa. What is the theme of this book? How do the three volumes differ from one another?

A: From the outset of the first volume/ body of work, I had a vision in mind: I wanted to create an elegy, a likely last testament to an extraordinary, beautiful natural world and its denizens that is rapidly disappearing before our eyes. I wanted to show these animals as individual spirits, sentient creatures equally as worthy of life as us. However, over the three books and the dozen years it has taken to take the photos, much has changed,

the pace of killing and destruction escalated dramatically, and so the books have an arc — from the vision of an African Eden at the start, through a shadow falling over that in the form of man’s influence, to the grim reality of the present day, as this extraordinary natural world rapidly disappears at the destructive, rapacious hands of man. The titles of the three book form one consecutive sentence that kind of says it all, I think: “On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across the Ravaged Land.”

Q: Your photographs are very intimate and capture a human sensibility… it’s almost as though these great beasts are posing for you in a studio. What approach do you use to photograph these unpredictable animals?

A: One word: patience. And yes, I am basically waiting for the animals to present themselves for their portraits. I just have to be patient for that possible moment, which usually never comes, when they grace me with that. But as I have said many times before, for me, I photograph them in exactly the way I would a human being, the difference being that I just have to wait, I cannot direct.

Q: How are you able to get so close to your subjects?

A: That one word again: patience. I don’t use telephotos or zoom lenses. In fact, everything I do is impractical: I shoot medium format film (I don’t like digital for the kind of work I do), without all the accoutrements these days available to more sensible photographers: no auto-focus, no motor-drive (10 shots per roll), no image-stabilizing lenses, no metering, etc, etc. So I just have to be patient, and allow the animals to become accustomed to my presence.

Q: Tell me about the calcified bird series.

A: The notion of portraits of dead animals in the place where they once lived is what also drew me to photographing the creatures in the calcified series:

I unexpectedly found the creatures — all manner of birds and bats — washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania. No one knows for certain exactly how they die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, causing them to crash into the lake. The water has an extremely high soda content, so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds. The soda and salt causes the creatures to calcify, perfectly preserved, as they dry. I took these creatures as I found them on the shoreline, and then placed them in “living” positions, bringing them back to “life,” as it were. Reanimated, alive again in death.

Some scientists are saying that the birds would have died naturally from illness. We disagree. We have found entire flocks of quelea, small finches, washed up on shore in a 50-yard stretch of shoreline. One hundred dead birds along one stretch of 50 yards. So clearly, they all died at once. Which suggests that the notion that they accidentally all flew into the glassy reflective surface of the water, like a plate glass window, is a very plausible theory.

All the birds are rock-hard when found, but are not stone, as reported in many articles. You cannot turn their heads, manipulate their wings, etc. So I took them as I found them and placed them on the branches for their portraits.

Q: What is Big Life Foundation? Why did you create it?  What do you hope to achieve through it?

A: There is a continent-wide apocalypse of animals in Africa at the moment. Most of it is due to the escalating insatiable demand for animal parts from the Far East, some of it due to the ever greater conflict for space between humans and animals as the human population increases. Elephants are being killed at an estimated rate of 35,000-plus a year. That is 10% of the population every year. You can do the math and work out how little time we have left. It’s the same crisis for the remaining lions, rhinos, cheetahs, amongst many others.

In one critical area in East Africa, I felt that we could do something to protect an extraordinary 2 million-acre ecosystem that is home to one of the greatest remaining populations of elephants in Africa.Three years after starting Big Life, with 310 rangers in 31 outposts, the incidence of killing in the region is way down. Big Life is the only organization in East Africa that has co-coordinated anti-poaching teams operating on both sides of a country’s borders. The animals don’t pay attention to borders. Nor do poachers. So neither can we. If animal populations and attendant ecosystems across Africa are to stand a chance of surviving into the future, working with the local communities is the only feasible chance we stand.

This is Big Life’s ethos, the only way for the future: Conservation supports the people, the people support the conservation.

But we are in a race against time. Big Life is working on the ground to staunch the flow of blood whilst we wait for the frustrating inept machinations of government to effect institutional change on the demand for these animals. The more donor funds we have, obviously the better and further we can spread our net of protection in the interim.

Q: What is you favorite animal?

A: Elephants. The fascinating and complex ways that they interact, their intelligence and individual personalities. In other words, again not so different from us. I can spend many contented hours in their company, doing nothing but watch them go about their day.