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Profile | Nick Brandt: Inherit the Dust

Haunting images of the vanishing African landscape speak to the devastating impact of progress on the environment.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Alleyway with Chimpanzee 2014.

Nick Brandt has been documenting the vanishing African landscape since 2001, creating some of the most haunting images of a disappearing world since Edward S. Curtis traversed the Great Plains one hundred years ago. His epic photographs have been presented in a series of books that underscore Brandt’s devotion to his work. Inherit The Dust, Brandt’s newest work, shows the impact of progress on the natural world, using the ability of the camera to both capture and transcend time so that we may consider the interplay between the past and present. Brandt placed a life-size panel of one of his animal portraits in areas they used to roam, areas that today have become factories, dumpsites, underpasses, and quarries, reminding us of the speed at which the landscape can be decimated. The sense of before and after is particularly poignant when one considers Brandt has only been making these photographs since 2001.

Also: Secret Histories | David T. Hanson: Wilderness to Wasteland

INHERIT THE DUST BOOK JACKETInherit The Dust (Edwynn Houk Editions) has just been released to coincide with a series of exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Berlin, among other cities. The inaugural show is currently on view at Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York, extended through May 7, 2016 (a schedule appears at the end of the story). Brandt speaks with Crave about the work.

Factory with Rhino 2014

Factory with Rhino 2014

Please speak about your experiences in Africa while filming the video for Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”; what was it about your experiences on this project that inspired you to dedicate yourself to documenting the animals and land of Africa?

Nick Brandt: Spending time in East Africa, in the wilds, I realized that photography was the way to express my feelings about animals and the endangered natural world, in a way that I thought had not been done before. Animals and nature were my first love, not photography. Photography was merely the best medium, the best vehicle, for me to express my feelings about the disappearing natural world.

Why did you decide to photograph in black and white rather than color? What do black and white do for and in a photograph that is distinct from color?

For the type of photos I take, although the photos in Inherit the Dust obviously show a very modern world, color for me has too modern a sensibility. But the animal portraits that appear within the photos, shot originally in black and white, had to blend into the modern day landscape, so Inherit the Dust had to be black and white. 

And I prefer the way that black and white contributes to a more somber, melancholic mood, that is for me in keeping with the concept and subject matter.

Besides this, purely aesthetically, I simply prefer black and white for the way it strips the frame down to the essentials, and forces me to focus on the graphic shapes and composition within the frame. 

Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back, Your Life is on Track) 2015

Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back, Your Life is on Track) 2015

You are in the position to move between two worlds and help create a more accurate understanding of Africa in the West. How do you use photography as a means to exploring and communicating truth?

I’m not sure that this is answering your question, but I think it’s important for people from the privileged West to see the African point of view as well. Many Africans would say that our Western societies trampled all over our own natural world centuries ago in the interests of economic expansion, and that in Africa, they never got much of a chance to develop economically until now. And so now it’s their turn to grow economically. Why should they be deprived of the comfortable, material lives that we have in the West? 

But Africa is sitting on a veritable gold (elephant) mine. And as the continent-wide destruction of the natural world continues, those ecosystems that do remain will become even more precious and highly valued

Yes, we have a moral and humane imperative to protect the earth and its creatures. But there is also enormous economic benefit. 

Quarry with Lion 2014

Quarry with Lion 2014

Your trilogy: On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, and Across Ravaged Land, is an epic forewarning of what you are revealing in Inherit the Dust. It is overwhelming. In such a short period of time, such a tremendous loss, all the more daunting when looking at the continuum of Africa during colonial and post-colonial times. Progress is a very complicated thing. In your 15 years photographing the transformation of the African natural world, what is the most significant lesson that you have learned about the relationship between the people, the animals, and the land? 

Well, there are just too damned many of us. A terrifying, overwhelming number, and the animals in places such as sub-Saharan Africa cannot possibly co-exist in such a finite space, without a herculean effort on our part. Due to outdated perspectives and too many nature documentaries, we still have a tendency to think of Africa as this vast continent still filled with large areas of pristine wilderness. Were that it were so.

But there is a solution, the key to the future of conservation in East Africa, at least. And that is working closely with the local communities in the conservation of the areas in which they live. If conservation supports the communities, then with patience and time, the communities will support conservation. This is the fundamental ethos of Big Life Foundation, the organization that I co-founded in 2010, which currently helps protect over 2 million acres of critical ecosystem in East Africa. Big Life’s success would never have been possible without the support of the local communities, who increasingly understand that pragmatically speaking, that protecting the wildlife and ecosystem will ultimately be of more benefit to them. 

When an elephant is killed by poachers, the average sum earned by poachers and traders will be around $20,000, with obviously none of it seen by the community. But it has been calculated that over the course of its lifetime, a single elephant will contribute more than $1.6 million to the country’s tourism economy.

Of course, this perspective requires simple common sense and foresight. Unfortunately, the world is filled with politicians (see the current state of the U.S. Republican party) and industrialists who will go to great lengths to undermine the health of the planet for short term profit, long term massive loss. So the war to protect the planet will continue, and we’ll keep fighting….

Wasteland with Elephant 2015

Wasteland with Elephant 2015

Nick Brandt: Inherit the Dust will be on view at:
Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York, NY, March 10-April 30, 2016
Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, March 24-May 14, 2016
Fotografiska Museum, Stockholm, May 20-September 11, 2016
Camerawork, Berlin, May 12-July 8, 2016
Atlas Gallery, Solo Show @ Photo London, May 18-22, 2016
All photos: © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery. New York

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.