New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 21 June 6 to 12, 2012

Iconic Beasts
Nick Brandt
On This Earth, A Shadow Falls
Don Burmeister
Elephant Drinking, Amboseli by Nick Brandt. Source:
Nick Brandt, "Elephant Drinking, Amboseli" 2007

An icon producer in an iconoclastic age, Nick Brandt is a Los Angeles based videogapher who for the past 14 years has been following his passion, photographing the wild animals of East Africa. Armed with a medium-format film camera (and occasionally foraying into panoramic format,) Brandt, by his own account, spends weeks following and becoming accepted by the animals, then waiting for favorable combinations of lighting and behavior. A very patient man, the resulting photographs are nothing short of spectacular.

The big, sepia toned, digital prints on display at Hasted Kreutler are highly crafted and it is clear that there is as much care in the post-production of these images as in their capture. Indeed, this viewer’s reaction on first sight was disbelief, followed by a careful search for telltale Photoshop artifacts – which were almost nonexistent. Two panoramic images, one of giraffes silhouetted on a hillside, and another of a large herd of elephants marching across a lake bed truly seem improbable. But Brandt has left not a trace of manipulation, and in interviews he says he does not use cloning in these pictures – this is just what he saw!

Brandt describes the images as portraits, and we can usually see the eyes of individual animals. But these are portraits of a very particular style. The lighting and angles used bring to mind classic glamour images of Hollywood stars from the 30’s and 40’s. One image of an elephant in a dust bath even adds the smoky highlights of cigarette smoke in the background. Achieving this effect without control over lighting is where Brandt’s command of Photoshop comes to the fore. The controlled burning and dodging, increased contrast, blurring and vignetting of the images serves to accentuate the subjects far beyond what even the best darkroom technician could ever achieve. As a side note, the treatment of grain in these images is particularly lush, the use of sepia and black (rather than black and white) gives an almost fresco-like texture to the prints which allows the white highlights to pop.

Elephant with Exploding Dust, Amboseli by Nick Brandt. Source:
Nick Brandt, "Elephant with Exploding Dust, Amboseli" 2004

So what’s wrong with these pictures? They are honestly produced, intrinsically interesting, beautifully crafted, yet why do they still produce just a bit of a gag reflex?

Today we seem to be uncomfortable with the creation of icons. We seem to prefer to see our stars walking out of a Seven-Eleven in ill-fitting jeans, rather than in highly stylized, formal portraits. YouTube is more revealing than Yousef Karsh.

Then there are the unforgiving associations with advertising. The animals in these pictures are presented in a luxurious, exotic, isolated style befitting the latest sports car or expensive perfume. Nor is there evidence of human activity (there are some very iconic looking humans in some of the images published in his books.) In reality, the Range Rover tracks are only a few feet from the animals. (As befits a true Angelino, Brandt photographs many of his images from the safety of his car/blind.) In other words, the images are one-dimensional; rightly or wrongly there are too many trappings of commercial photography to eliminate the feeling that someone is trying to sell you a bill of goods.

In fact, Brandt does have a worthy cause behind the images: the preservation of the animals themselves and their habitat.

Yet one has to ask: by eliminating the human presence, especially the aggrieved local residents (whose farms are sometimes trampled by the beasts, but whose cooperation and trust are essential to any long-term preservation effort,) does Brandt create images that undercut the very goal he espouses?

Nick Brandt
On This Earth, A Shadow Falls

Hasted Kraeutler
537 W 24th St.
Chelsea         Map

212 627 0006

Thursday, March 29 to
Saturday, June 9, 2012
Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 to 6