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Monumental Wildlife Portraits Capture Wastelands Once Roamed

Photographer Nick Brandt transforms his portraits of East African wildlife into ephemeral monuments to a vanishing world.

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English photographer Nick Brandt first had occasion to visit East Africa in 1995, as the director of the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song.” As many have, he simply “fell in love with the place,” not least with the animals that live there. “That experience shifted my focus in terms of what I wanted to say about the world,” says Brandt, and for almost two decades now, he has exclusively dedicated himself to saying it. His richly toned and finely detailed black-and-white photographs of East Africa’s surreal landscapes and wild creatures have the regal tone of court portraiture, a timeless, cinematic confidence, and the complex emotional gravitas of character studies. But what was born of a pure, almost innocent, and deeply personal love for the charms of the region soon became inextricably bound up in much thornier, darker, and increasingly dire issues of rapid, reckless industrialization and its dangerous and tragic encroachment on the natural environments animals once called home.

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Factory with Rhino (2014). © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

His new book Inherit the Dust, from which selections are currently on display at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles through May 16, reflects both this narrative, political stance, and a breakthrough moment in Brandt’s artistic evolution. Inherit the Dust is an inventive, labor-intensive, concept-driven, art historical work. Conceived in early 2014 to highlight the scope of the damage being inflicted by human activity, Brandt had the idea to not only re-photograph the same locations where he had shot his years of animal portraits, but to physically incorporate those original images back into the same locations in dramatic fashion. He enlarged his previous images to the scale of billboards and murals, and physically installed them in carefully composed relationships to the jarring surroundings where the creatures once belonged. The results are partly magical in a how did he do that? craftsmanship kind of way, and partly heartbreaking as they perform and embody the surreal symbolism and real-life magnitude of the situation in a way no statistics ever could.

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Quarry with Giraffe (2014). © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

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Quarry with Lion (2014). © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

That said, the accompanying texts in the hefty tome go into great detail about every aspect of the project’s process and its meaning. From Brandt’s own moving narrative on what he has come to see as his life’s purpose, to a photography-lover’s nerd-fest on the allure of large-format film cameras, and an especially entertaining set of responses to being asked if the pictures are Photoshopped, to candid behind-the-scenes stories about the makings of individual pieces, the cavalier attitude of locals toward the antics of a nutty Western artist, the book is an essential object. That said, there's nothing quite like encountering the prints in person, because one result of using film is a depth of detail that stands up to massive enlargement. Brandt himself feels that “anything less than an eight-foot-long print does not begin to capture all the elements. Each face, each piece of garbage, tells more of the story.”

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Wasteland with Rhinos and Residents (2015). © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

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Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back, Your Life is on Track) (2015). © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

What began as an artistic romance soon became a matter of political urgency for Brandt, as his poetic documentation of East Africa’s megafauna transformed him from a gifted nature photographer into an unwitting witness to extinction, from a documentarian to activist. In 2010, he co-founded the Big Life Foundation, a nonprofit more than deserving of an Earth Day contribution (hint, hint), which directly supports the protection of some two million acres in Kenya and Tanzania, through both a growing corps of ranger patrols, and the advocacy of a civic policy founded on eco-tourism instead of industrial development. “One poached elephant tusk sells for $20K and no one in the community sees that money, even if they wanted it,” he notes. “But one elephant can claim $1.6 million as his lifetime share of the GDP—and that all stays in country.” But despite the success of the Foundation, which Brandt credits to the tireless operational savvy of his co-founder Richard Bonham, in the end, Brandt is an artist, and his gift is for making images that communicate in a language of poetry that inspires rather than divides.

Click here to visit Nick Brandt's website.

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