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Out of Africa
A photographer ventures to East Africa to capture the beauty of wild animals’ perfect profiles and most minute details.

 

Early photographers recognized the monumental importance of creatures such as Africa’s large animals but could do little about it other than photograph those that sat still in a zoo. Once film was fast enough, telephoto lenses precise enough, and color film good enough, photographs of dangerous and elusive animals in their native habitats became a reliable and popular science of vicarious thrills.

Nick Brandt’s pictures present a more complex set of goals and achievements than the usual run of reports from the African wild. His prints are designed for aesthetic consideration yet often bypass conventional and conventionally beautiful compositions. His landscape photographs, some panoramic, harbor animals that give them meaning. In certain images, a single animal holds its own against overwhelming skies and plains. The eye is ineluctably drawn to the creature, whose weight in the frame makes it the equivalent of the land’s expansive grandeur: a distillation, a shortcut, a recognizable and more comprehensible clue to the inchoate feelings such environments evoke. In other landscapes, Brandt discovers animals and land that mirror and comment on one another. Many pictures convey a rare sense of intimacy, as if Brandt knew his subjects. He waits with a Zen-like patience for days, even weeks, to become an acceptable presence. The results are portraits of wild animals.

 

Brandt’s staunch endurance and quick eye combine to produce emblems as well as personal portraits, however; at times they are one and the same. Animals in perfect profile, some as precisely reflected upside down in shallow water as figures on playing cards, would be ideal illustrations of The Zebra and The Rhinoceros for an animal encyclopedia. The most minute details can have this effect—a lion’s every whisker, pore, and hair—as can the most classic definitive poses.

It is an old trick of photography, and one of its best, to ferret out beauty and significance where none was intended. Still, nature can be extraordinarily generous to its most devoted acolytes with cameras and quicksilver sensibilities, arranging itself in compositions that would do a designer proud. I suppose the two zebras have turned their heads and raised their ears in identical fashion because they’ve heard the same noise, and I am aware they did not don their stripes to match, but what a pas de deux, and how beautifully costumed and performed! Given humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize, it is probably mere projection that finds Brandt’s elephants somber and melancholy, as if they were oppressed by their own wrinkles. A lion that leans his forehead down to his mate’s might only be insisting on his dominance, but it sure looks like affection or at least some kindly, husbandly communication.

 

A Shadow Falls, taken in its entirety, is a love story without a happily every after. The opening of the narrative is lush: An elephant swings across a forest floor where light beaming through a luxurious canopy of leaves falls upon him like a spotlight. Later, the lake beds dry up. Two giraffes are undismayed by a twister in the distance: it’s a dust devil, one of many that rise off the land in the dry season, more often since cattle grazing has caused vicious erosion. And at the end, at sunset, an abandoned ostrich egg lies on earth cracked like a brittle piece of china, a parable of the universe’s experiments with life, which did not succeed where there was no water. We are destroying the land for uncountable reasons, as efficient a way as many another to kill off animals—even when most of the shooting in the African wild these days is done with a camera. At any rate, the land, this earth, is all we have—but the animals will go before we do.

Text adapted from and images taken from A Shadow Falls (Abrams Books, September 2009). For additional information, click here.)

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