A recent post on The Awl led me to the work of wildlife photographer Nick Brandt, whose stark, lovely black-and-white image capture animals on East African reservations. (You can check out more of his windblown lions, elephant cathedrals, and pensive giraffes here.)
“Capture” is a word that seems to come up a lot when people talk about photographs, maybe because of the idea that when we take a picture of something, we’re also trying to take possession of it. In the case of nature photography, this impulse can arise from any number of subset-motivations: to bring beauty and wilderness back to domestic spaces, to place what’s huge and unknowable within a frame that we can study and try to understand, or–as seems to be Brandt’s mission—to both preserve a piece of the present for our future selves, and, by acknowledging the dire need for acts of preservation, spur political action in his audiences. (His website recommends environmental groups in Africa and in the U.S., and an interview in Scientific American clarifies his concern with deforestation, global warming, hunger, and population pressure.)
Brandt photographs animals in black-and-white in order to communicate the already-bygone era of African animals as they are now. A profile shot of a lion is Photoshopped into a cracked portrait fading at the edges; both the sepia tones and the noble bearing of a photograph of a half-blind buffalo suggest a Civil War general likely to have died in battle. His photographs also appear carefully composed; even without retouching, his animals look as if they’re sitting for portraits, although Brandt has stated in interviews that he actually just waits as long as it takes to get the shot he’s looking for. What types of shots is he looking for, exactly? In his photographs, animals are typically still: while there are pictures of water buffalo crossing the river or an elephant shaking dust from its skin, they are more frequently depicted at rest. To me, they look as if they’re thinking, which raises another set of questions: Do the aesthetics of these photographs make the animals look human? Do they have the effect of making us see ourselves as animals, as we recognize ourselves in them? What are the consequences of each of these options? I’m only scratching the surface with these photographs, but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.