An Interview with Nick Brandt
Mariah: What made you want to study photography and art?
Nick: I didn’t study photography at art college (I wish I had). I only came to photography when I realized that it was the best medium for me to be able to express my feelings about animals, the natural world, and the destruction of both at the hands of humans.
M: You often photograph the disappearing natural world. What was your inspiration for This Empty World?
N: Less inspiration more realization - a growing realization that in East Africa (and indeed in many other parts of the world), there is a rapidly diminishing amount of space left for wild animals to live, that humankind is invading those areas that animals have inhabited for millennia but are now being swallowed up by human development and expansion.
Combining the animals and development into one frame, photographed weeks apart on the same spot, was for me symbolic of this invasion of the remaining natural wilderness by humans, as the animals are wiped out in the rapidly decreasing number of places they can live. However, it was also important to show that the people in these photos are not the aggressors, that they too are victims of environmental degradation, and that it is generally the rural poor that suffer the most from environmental destruction.
M: How long did you have to wait after construction for the animals to wander into the scene?
N: The main construction came second. Initially, cameras and lights were set up, with minimal foreground set elements, with waterholes, in the hopes that the animals would be attracted to the water. But because I chose to photograph on unprotected, inhabited Maasai ranch land, the animals were extremely shy moving around during the day with so much human activity (thousands of livestock being herded), but became less wary at night. The Musée book review states that we shot on preserved land, but that is not the case - the land we photographed on was public populated land, with sets often just a couple of hundred meters from villages and roads. This is why, with some cameras, it still took upwards of five months of waiting before megafauna species felt comfortable enough to walk in front of the cameras.
M: Your current work in This Empty World was done by laying separate photos over one another, so it seems that animals and people are in the same construction area. How did you come up with the idea for overlaying and why?
N: The photos are usually not laid over one another. They are stitched together frames to form a panorama. The frames with the animals, and the frames with the people and sets, are photographed from the exact same locked-off camera position. Two moments shot weeks apart in the same place.
Obviously there is a superior technical integrity to photographing everything in the same place - the lighting and focal lengths will all exactly match - but in the shooting, I found a more true aesthetic and emotional integrity in having everything in the same place.
M: What did you have to do and research to prepare for This Empty World?
There was the aesthetic research - all the sets were modeled on what me and my art director saw in Kenya. And there was the technical research and development of the equipment - that would enable us to photograph three consecutive frames to form a panoramic stitch, and the means by which we could protect the equipment out in the heat and dust for months and against animals destroying it.
M: Since you left the camera at the site to photograph the animals did you look at the pictures of the animals before photographing people in the scene?
Each morning we would review the photographs of the animals taken by the cameras overnight. The best were then selected to become part of the shot list for second stage with full set and people. Each location was pre-designed in terms of what the set would be, and thus all the light sources emanating from it. In addition, context of the animals in relation to the people was critical. So for example, in photos like Savannah with Lion and Humans, or Elephant and Human Family, I was looking for a shared sense of loss and melancholy between humans and animals. That could only happen by pre-selecting all the first stage photos of the animals.
M: Many photographers know what they’re capturing as soon as they take the shot you don’t know what you’re going to get until after you place the photos on top of each other. Does it require more trial and error, or do you have a specific technique?
The two stages of photos are stitched together, generally not placed on top of one another. We were completely locked-in once we set the camera and set up the lights with their colored gels. There was obviously no control in what the animals might do in front of camera, but complete control in the second stage with the people. (Although I did generally only roughly place them in shot and then leave them to relax, or get bored, to the point that they did not know when they were being photographed. This hopefully results in a less posed, more natural state of being in the photos.)
M: What sparked your curiosity to photograph in Africa?
I fell in love with the animals and natural world there - it is one of the few places left in the world where you can look across the plains and see multiple species en masse all within the same view. But I knew from the outset that this was all disappearing fast.
M: What do you hope people gain from your photography?
Simply put, I hope this work can be part of a very necessary growing dialogue and awareness about the destruction of the natural world (and thus greater efforts made to act upon that).
M: Are there any new landscapes you want to explore?
My next project addresses climate change in North America. Climate change is the most monumental problem ever to face humankind. But the anti-science crowd in the United States continues to willfully disregard the overwhelming scientific consensus on man-made climate change. Their greed, ignorance and obstructionism, and deliberate dissemination of misinformation, is allowing, and will allow, many billions of animals, and millions of people, to suffer and die, the impact lasting for centuries to come. Jeopardizing the future of the planet for the sake of their own short-term profit is, in my opinion, a crime like no other in the history of humanity. As the environmentalist Judy Bonds said, “There are no jobs on a dead planet”.
So…yes, climate change in America is the subject of my next project.
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.