In ‘This Empty World,’ Nick Brandt’s lens focus on planet’s creatures, big and small

Just outside of Amboseli National Park, where the disappearing snows of Mount Kilimanjaro can be seen in the distance, photographer Nick Brandt waits to capture the members of Kenya’s animal kingdom.

Days, weeks and sometimes months go by before elephants or giraffes or lions wander into a setting that will be transformed into a museum-quality photograph, an image meant to become a visual call to action.

Timeliness is a concern in Africa because the land where large, wild beasts roam is being altered by development, population growth and bushmeat poaching, which is on the rise since COVID has destroyed tourism and survival has meant a return to trapping animals to sell or eat .

“There are literally, very few places left,” Brandt says. “When I started photographing in the early 2000s, you could still drive through a vast, unprotected area and see giraffes. That’s gone.”

More than two dozen, large scale photographs are displayed in Brandt’s touring exhibition “This Empty World,” which opens today at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

The images shock the viewer and the collision of natural and unnatural states inspire closer study.

There are petrol stations, construction sites, dry river beds and dimly lit, lonely roads, scenes populated with people and wild animals, all captured in familiar, yet foreboding landscapes.

“River of People with Elephant at Night” by Nick Brandt (2019, archival pigment print)

(Courtesy of Nick Brandt)

In “River of People With Elephant at Night,” for instance, a giant, tusked elephant stands between throngs of people standing in line, many looking at their phones, as if they are waiting to cross a border.

In another image, a stately giraffe is in the midst of men engaged in charcoal burning, a cheap energy source in Africa that contributes to deforestation.

Charcoal burning involves arranging logs of harvested wood and covering the pile with a mound of earth before setting it on fire, an anaerobic process that keeps the wood from turning to ash.

Brandt goes to great lengths to create that eerie quality that identifies his photographs.

First, he finds a site and establishes a watering station to attract animals.

Then, cameras and lighting are set up within protected frames to avoid elephants crushing them and “hyenas chewing through cables.”

Brandt photographs the scenes he creates as panoramas to accommodate both people and the large size of the animals, and he takes many pictures at night, when they are more likely to emerge.

The process

“The equipment was designed so that when an animal walked into the frame, it would trigger the motion sensors, which would trigger the camera shutter and the lights,” Brandt explains.

“The camera, on a gimbal, would fire three consecutive frames, panning as it went. The panorama would first be populated by the animals, and then, a number of weeks later — in exactly the same frame with the camera remaining fixed, with the same lighting — it would now be re-photographed with people in the completed sets. When you put it all together in Photoshop, the images hopefully have an aesthetic and technical integrity.”

The seamless “stitching” of both scenes, one with animals and the other with people, is critical to Brandt’s creativity.

“What happens when you are shooting everything in the same shot is the beauty of serendipity, of happenstance,” he says.

“It’s incredibly important to me that I always feel that what happens in real life is better than anything I could come up with in my imagination.”

Brandt, who was born in London but now lives in California, continues to address the impact of the destruction of the environment on humankind.

His latest global project, “The Day May Break,” was photographed in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

The images were shot in 2020 at animal sanctuaries and pair rescue animals with people who have lost homes and loved ones due to circumstances related to climate change.

“When I started photographing, I was thinking about what is happening to the natural world,” says Brandt, who showcases images from both excursions in art books available at nickbrandt.com

“But as we hurl headlong towards climate chaos, I have to include ourselves in the work I do.”

In 2010, Brandt, conservationist Richard Bonham and entrepreneur Tom Hill created the nonprofit Big Life Foundation (biglife.org), an organization that protects more than 1.6 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem of East Africa. It also employs hundreds of local Maasai rangers in anti-poaching operations.

“Each of us, in our own way, can hopefully find something that passionately moves us towards action,” Brandt says.

“People say this work is so bleak. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought all hope was lost or there was literally nothing to be done. Clearly, there is. It’s disturbing to see the level of apathy and indifference and willful ignorance leading to destruction. But that shouldn’t stop one from doing what one can.”

Museum of Photographic Arts presents Nick Brandt’s ‘This Empty World’

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Today through Oct. 2.

Where: Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park

Admission: pay what you wish

Telephone: (619) 238-7559

On-line: mopa.org

Luttrell is a freelance writer.

“Bus Station with Elephant in Dust” by Nick Brandt (2019, archival pigment print)

(Courtesy of Nick Brandt)

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