Great wildlife photographers have a singular purpose – to tell us a cautionary tale about the destruction of the animal kingdom. They want us to look at the creatures with which we share the earth, to make us care, to make us change our disregard for animals’ welfare – before it’s too late.
Some photographers, like Jim Brandenburg and Frans Lanting, favorites of mine, take their work to the next level: they create art. Add Nick Brandt to that list. A Shadow Falls (Abrams, 132 pp., $50), his second book, is a masterpiece.
Epic, stunning, breathtaking – all those great adjectives apply to his beautifully reproduced, black-and-white, sepia-toned images from East Africa. Even though the photos were taken in this millennium, they transport us back to the 19th century. Sometimes he intentionally “damages” the prints to make them look older, an effect that adds to his message: Soon, these pictures may be the only things left to remind us of what once was.
Here’s another surprise – Brandt uses no telephoto lenses. He often sits for hours, weeks even, in one spot until the right combination of elements comes together – the animal, light, pose, background. When they do, it’s extraordinary. By Brandt’s own estimate, he spends 99 percent of his time ... waiting.
Look at these photographs and try not to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the natural world. There isn’t a weak or boring shot in the collection. My favorites: an old bull elephant with tattered ears, a lion’s mane blowing in the wind as a storm rolls in, and giraffes positioned like chess pieces across a savanna.
Most of all, however, I love the photo titled “Lions Head to Head,” an intimate moment between a male and female lion. How do you take a photo like that without a telephoto lens?
Brandt’s landscapes seem unpopulated by humankind, ruled by the king of the beasts. If only it were true. Protected lands are shrinking by the day – and even those aren’t free from poaching, water scarcity, land erosion.
Gifted photographer Nick Brandt reminds us that we are not the only ones on this planet who matter.
Melanie Stetson Freeman is a Monitor staff photographer.