Nick Brandt (born 1964) is an English photographer whose themes always relate to the disappearing natural world, before much of it is destroyed by mankind. Born in 1964 and raised in London, England, Brandt studied Painting, and then Film at Saint Martin’s School of Art. He moved to California in 1992 and directed many award-winning music videos. It was in 1995 while directing “Earth Song” in Tanzania that Brandt fell in love with the animals and land of East Africa. In 2001, frustrated that he could not capture on film his feelings about and love for animals, he realized there was a way to achieve this through photography, in a way that he felt no-one had done before.
In 2001, Brandt embarked upon his first photographic project: a trilogy of work to memorialize the vanishing natural grandeur of East Africa. This work bore little relation to the typical, color, documentary-style wildlife photography. Brandt’s images were mainly graphic portraits more akin to studio portraiture of human subjects from a much earlier era, as if these animals were already long dead. “The resulting photographs feel like artifacts from a bygone era.” Using a Pentax 67II with two fixed lenses, Brandt photographed on medium-format black and white film without telephoto or zoom lenses. He writes: “You wouldn’t take a portrait of a human being from a hundred feet away and expect to capture their spirit; you’d move in close.”
A book of the resulting photography, On This Earth, was released in 2005 and constituted 66 photos taken from 2000–2004 with introductions by the conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall, author Alice Sebold, and photography critic Vicki Goldberg.
In the afterword, Brandt explained the reasons for the methods he used at the time: “I’m not interested in creating work that is simply documentary or filled with action and drama, which has been the norm in the photography of animals in the wild. What I am interested in is showing the animals simply in the state of Being. In the state of Being before they are no longer are. Before, in the wild at least, they cease to exist. This world is under terrible threat, all of it caused by us. To me, every creature, human or nonhuman, has an equal right to live, and this feeling, this belief that every animal and I are equal, affects me every time I frame an animal in my camera. The photos are my elegy to these beautiful creatures, to this wrenchingly beautiful world that is steadily, tragically vanishing before our eyes.”
Returning to Africa repeatedly from 2005–2008, Brandt continued the project. The second book in the trilogy, A Shadow Falls, was released in 2009 and featured 58 photographs taken during the preceding years. Writing in the introduction, Goldberg states: “Many pictures convey a rare sense of intimacy, as if Brandt knew the animals, had invited them to sit for his camera, and had a prime portraitist’s intuition of character…as elegant as any arranged by Arnold Newman for his human high achievers.”
In additional introductions, philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, explains why Brandt’s photographs speak to an increasing human moral conscience about our treatment of animals: “The photographs tell us, in a way that is beyond words, that we do not own this planet, and are not the only beings living on it who matter.”
In 2013, Brandt completed the trilogy On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across the Ravaged Land (the titles designed to form one consecutive sentence) with Across the Ravaged Land. A book of the photography was released the same year. Across the Ravaged Land introduced humans in Brandt’s photography for the first time. One such example is Ranger with Tusks of Elephant Killed at the Hands of Man, Amboseli, Kenya 2011. This photograph features a ranger employed by Big Life Foundation, a foundation started by Brandt in 2010 to help preserve critical ecosystems in Kenya and Tanzania. The ranger holds the tusks of an elephant of the Amboseli region killed by poachers.
In 2014, Brandt returned to East Africa to photograph the escalating changes to the continent’s natural world. In a series of panoramic photographs, he recorded the impact of man in places where animals used to roam. In each location, he erected a life size panel of one of his animal portrait photographs, setting the panels within a world of urban development, factories, wasteland and quarries. A book of the work, Inherit the Dust, was published in 2016. In the book, Brandt writes, “We are living through the antithesis of genesis right now. It took billions of years to reach a place of such wondrous diversity, and then in just a few shockingly short years, an infinitesimal pinprick of time, to annihilate that.”
Writing in LensCulture, editor Jim Casper stated: “The resulting wall-size prints are impeccably beautiful and stunning, as well as profoundly disturbing. They convey the vast spaces and light of contemporary Africa with a cinematic immersion and incredible detail. When standing in front of his images, the viewer is transported into the scenes – sometimes with wonder and awe and joy, and other times with overwhelming sadness, despair and disgust.” Photography critic Michelle Bogre further noted: “Nick Brandt’s new photographic work, Inherit the Dust, is his visual cry of anguish about the looming apocalypse for animals habitats in Africa… The resulting images are simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, because they illustrate the irreconcilable clash of past and present.”
In September 2010, in urgent response to the escalation of poaching in Africa due to increased demand from the Far East , Brandt founded the non-profit organization Big Life Foundation, dedicated to the conservation of Africa’s wildlife and ecosystems. With one of the most spectacular elephant populations in Africa being rapidly diminished by poachers, the Amboseli ecosystem—which straddles both Kenya and Tanzania—became the foundation’s large-scale pilot project.
Headed up in Kenya by conservationist Richard Bonham, multiple fully equipped teams of anti-poaching rangers have been placed in newly built outposts in the critical areas throughout the more than 2-million-acre (8,100 km2) area. This effort has resulted in a dramatically reduced incidence of killing and poaching of wildlife in the ecosystem. Big Life Foundation now employs several hundred rangers protecting approximately 2 million acres of ecosystem.