Iconic Animals ‘Return’ to Lands They Once Roamed

Earth Day is Friday, April 22, and Proof is celebrating all week. This is the second post in a five-day series about our planet.

A trip to Tanzania turned Nick Brandt on to photography 20 years ago, but his first love was animals.

“Africa is one of the few places left in the world where you can see animals en masse stretching across your field of vision,” he says. “That vision [of multiple species] taps into something deep within many of our psyches. There is a sense of extraordinary wonderment going back to a more primeval time, when that was commonplace across the entire world.” Photography, he says, was simply the best way to express his feelings about animals and nature, and he has been using it since as a call to action to preserve what remains.

With his latest project, “Inherit the Dust,” Brandt has gone to extraordinary lengths to show us what’s at stake if the human impact on the environment continues unchecked. Placing 30-foot portraits of elephants, giraffes, rhinos—all animals he had photographed previously in East Africa—against the stark, dystopian landscape of the underpasses, trash dumps, and quarries of Kenya’s increasingly sprawling development creates a jarring juxtaposition that serves as part cautionary tale, part wake-up call to a potentially different future.

“Africa has the ability to become a superpower when it comes to nature tourism,” Brandt says. (In 2010, Brandt co-founded an organization called Big Life, which helps fight poaching in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem of East Africa.)

As surreal as these images look, they are completely real, the result of Brandt meticulously combing through 12 years of contact sheets for just the right animal portraits (interestingly enough, what he viewed as flawed in context of his prior projects became the perfect compliment in context of this new one), scanning the negatives (Brandt works exclusively with film), making the prints, hiring a scout to identify locations in advance (which, as it turned out, still didn’t always have just the right feel, meaning more scouting on the fly), and constructing the 30-foot panels in situ against these backdrops.

Brandt, who was a director of music videos in a previous life, assumed at first that he would stage-manage the human subjects in these photographs but soon abandoned the idea. “I realized within a couple of days that was creating stiff, dull, unexciting results,” he says. “I wanted the impression that these panels were ghosts in the landscape and the people living there were totally oblivious to them. It instantly worked better by letting people get on with what they are getting on with.”

In this way, moments of serendipity occurred, such as the small boy with the stick poking the photograph of an elephant under an urban overpass. Such unscripted moments reveal another layer to the humans inhabiting these spaces, which contributes to the narrative. “What happens in reality is always going to be better than what you can concoct in Photoshop,” Brandt says. “Not just because it looks more real but there’s stuff that happens that is completely cool and wonderful that you’ve never thought of.”

This tension between control and happenstance extended to other areas of the project as well. He planned the shoots during Africa’s rainy season but still had plenty of sunny days to contend with. Sitting around on location with a crew, waiting for the just the right clouds to lend the melancholic tone he was looking for, was stressful. Then there were the complications of shooting on film, which not only added thousands of dollars to the budget and months to the project time but also meant not seeing the results of his work until heading back home.

Still, while he did some safety shots on digital, the format holds no allure for him. It felt “like being told to do my homework,” he says. “My boredom and disinterest in the process doesn’t work well if I’m trying to feel inspired by what I’m photographing.” And plus, as he wrote in an essay from his recently published book, “film just turns me on.”

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