This blog is no stranger to photographs featuring animals, from Joel Sartore's intimate look at North America's endangered animals to Yann Arthus-Bertrand's formal portraits of farm animals to Tim Flach's adorable images of dogs. These photographers have rightly earned their place in the field of animal portraits, but in the area of majestic wild animal portraits, only photographer Nick Brandt reigns king.
Nick Brandt's keen eye for light and shadow may stem from his studies in Film and Painting as Saint Martins School of Art. His distinct style for drama in his portraits was already being developed in the 1990s when he was still directing music videos for the likes of Michael Jackson. In 2000, he gave up his directing duties in favor of photography full-time, the results of which you can see here.
Brandt chose to focus on the wildlife of East Africa, specifically Kenya and Tanzania. This decision actually came about while he was directing Michael Jackson's "Earthsong" in 1996 while shooting on location in Tanzania. Brandt however made a conscious decision not to emulate the usual style of wildlife photography that continues to be the norm to this day. Instead, he set out to photograph these animals as if they were human, creating what can only be described as true wildlife portraits.
In creating these photographs, Brandt also used the tools reserved for fine-art portraits: a medium-format camera with normal or wide-angle lenses and black-and-white-prints with strong contrasts. These alone would set him apart from other wildlife photographers, however Brandt wanted something more for his photographs.
Setting aside the obvious beauty of these images, viewers are also treated to a rare sense of intimacy, as if these lions, elephants and zebras welcomed the presence of the viewer. This can be attributed to Brandt's style of photography: he chooses not to use a telephoto lens which gives photographers the ability to shoot from afar. Instead, he uses his patience, sometimes waiting for weeks, in order for the animals to accept him in their presence.
Brandt's images are indeed powerful: a lone elephant blowing dust across its behemoth body as it strides across the bare earth, a couple of zebras in profile looking back against a backdrop of an ominous sky, a lion surveying the savannah while resting under a crooked and barren tree. Even more amazing is that he planned these images carefully in each of his books. The first one, "On This Earth" was released in 2005 and the second, "A Shadow Falls" in 2009 with the final book in the trilogy to be released in 2013.
There is more to Brandt's books than their immediate impact upon viewing. They are his active response to the concerning situation of wildlife in East Africa. As he recalls in 1995 on his first trip to Tanzania, he saw giraffes, zebras, gazelles, impala and wildebeest. Thirteen years later when he returned, he drove for four hours in the same area without seeing a single wild animal. His trilogy of books then is an elegy to a world that is tragically vanishing.
You can learn more about Nick Brandt and his majestic wild-animal portraits over at his website. These images can currently be found in the books, On This Earth: Photographs from East Africa and A Shadow Falls.