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Photographer Nick Brandt spent months on dry lake beds and dusty plains, waiting to capture images of African wildlife in what he calls their "state of being". The animal assemblages that he saw through his lens are now revealed in A Shadow Falls, Brandt's book of stunning, sepia-toned portraits and panoramas released this month by Abrams. It is the second installment, after On This Earth: Photographs from East Africa, in his trilogy of books that Brandt hopes will memorialize "the vanishing natural grandeur of East Africa."
Curious about how Brandt, based in southern California, works with elephants, baboons and buffalo as subjects, ScientificAmerican.com asked him about what it was like to photograph them and what their future holds.
View a slide show of some of the portraits in A Shadow Falls
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What inspired you to create this collection of photos of wildlife in East Africa in A Shadow Falls?
Simply, I find myself indescribably moved every time I go to these places and see these animals in these settings.
There is something profoundly iconic, mythological even, about the animals of East and southern Africa. There is also something deeply, emotionally stirring and affecting about the plains of Africa—those vast, green rolling plains punctuated by graphically perfect acacia trees under the huge skies.
I'm not interested in creating work that is simply documentary or filled with action and drama, which has been the norm in the photography of animals in the wild. What I am interested in is showing the animals simply in the state of being—before, in the wild at least, they cease to exist. This world is under terrible threat, all of it caused by us.
What do you think are the major threats right now to the survival of the animals you have photographed?
Where to begin? Every year, every month, the problems seem to grow ever greater, ever more complex and ever more intertwined with one another. Between population pressure, global warming, deforestation and poaching, the destruction is massive and escalating.
In 1995 I first drove the main road from Nairobi down through southern Kenya to Arusha in northern Tanzania. Along the way, in completely unprotected areas, I saw giraffes, zebras, gazelles, impalas, wildebeest. A few months ago, just 13 years later, I made the same drive. I didn't see a single wild animal the entire four-hour drive. It's not that they've moved elsewhere. It's that they've been wiped out—turned into bushmeat.
The protected areas of land are comparatively tiny, animals move out of them all the time, and when they do, they are likely to eventually be killed for bushmeat or for poaching.
When people in Africa are poor and starving and there are no crops left to eat due to the deforestation and global warming leading to ever-worsening droughts, they cannot be blamed if they kill the last zebra walking through the bush for their family to eat.
You don't use a telephoto lens, which would allow you to create a greater sense of closeness to your subjects. Why not?
Because it's not the same. With a telephoto lens, the photographer is generally framing the animal against earth or scrub that has little poetry or beauty, whereas I want to see as much of the sky and landscape as possible.
I believe that being that close to the animal makes a huge difference in the photographer's ability to reveal its personality. You wouldn't take a portrait of a human being from a hundred feet away and expect to capture their soul; you'd move in close.