Book Review: This Empty World
by Amy Schatz
Nick Brandt’s This Empty World is a bold assault on human greed, capitalism, and consumer culture; this dusky monograph, the artist’s first work in color, digitally merges African fauna with staged urban zones in Kenya.
Brandt sets out with a noble cause: The total number of wild animals on the planet has been rapidly dwindling in the past century, and human development and practices are to blame for this rampant extinction. To reconcile the loss, or to perhaps shed light on the crisis that emerges when humans share borders with threatened species, Brandt compiled images in a two-step process; first, he photographed wild animals (elephants, giraffes, hyenas, lions) in their natural habitats, and later, he instructed his art team to construct intricate and realistic sets of mundane urban buildings like gas stations and construction zones on-site, exactly where the animals were originally photographed. The resulting photographs are surreal, diorama-like configurations in which humans (community members Brandt recruited from nearby towns and cities) and animals tread the same, half-developed, half-wild territory.
Admittedly, Brandt and his team had their share of troubles optimizing locations for the first step; they managed to select spots where “animals of consequence” were only transients before they discovered that their set site needed a water hole feature to attract the variety of large-scale animals they wanted to photograph. Months passed in which Brandt’s team battled meteorological and technical forces; seasonal rains and vicious dust storms threatened to destroy the camp, and the animals’ nocturnal habits forced the team to shoot through the night, every night.
This Empty World highlights Brandt’s ability to photograph wildlife in a way that doesn’t feel too posed, a difficult method of un-thinking that he mentions in the text. Though animals clearly dominate each photograph, they do not stand as if they were planted there; they wander, nonchalantly, like the milling human crowds behind them.
Parts of Brandt’s process seem unnecessarily excessive, however, as the sets required hours of labor to construct and massive amounts of energy to power. One questions whether this method of constructing and reconstructing urban stages on undeveloped, preserved land, as well as blasting flood lights into the dusty night, is as sustainable as Brandt’s aspirations imply, though he does mention that his art director designed the sets to be repurposed.
Whether or not Brandt’s practices extinguish the poaching and encroaching of nature’s most delicate species, his photographs are stunning and his hard work pays off. These massive, high-resolution images capture the disconcerting strength and power of animals that appear docile, and the faux petrol and bus stations hint at a not-too-far-distant, dystopian future.
Nick Brandt: This Empty World, published by Thames and Hudson in Feb 2019, coincides with exhibitions at Waddington Custot, London (in collaboration with Atlas Gallery), February 7 – March 7, 2019; Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York, February 21 – April 20, 2019; and Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, February 28 – April 27, 2019.