I think many of you will recall me being quite blown away by the power of the images and the quality of the printing/ presentation in my review of Nick Brandt’s earlier twin book On This Earth, A Shadow Falls (here). I’m fairly sure many of you were too, judging from my email traffic, the comments, and the number of orders via Amazon. I’ve turned into an enormous fan of Nick’s work: he is the photographer’s photographer, a man who clearly thinks about what he’s doing, photographs with integrity, for a reason, with an idea, with the most appropriate tool for the job, and presents the images in the best possible way. Across The Ravaged Land, the final volume in the trilogy, raises the bar even further. I spent an hour with the book and felt like I’d been smacked upside the head with the Pentax 67II he favours. Allow me to explain why.
Note: in this article, I’ve attempted to reproduce the tonal feel and colour of the images as accurately as possible, but reality is that it’s simply impossible to do so via a screen and a JPEG. Just buy the book, and from the print quality alone you’ll see why every photographer should spend some time making prints. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact of the large format images.
The book arrived before I left for Tokyo, but I wanted to set aside sufficient time to do it justice, so I didn’t open it until recently. I’m glad I did; though we’ve come to expect both compositions and presentation of a certain level following the first book, it was the emotional impact of the book that did me in. The tilted enlarger lens (I think) printing and infrared film of the previous book is gone; so too is the impression of idealism, lightness and hope. Across The Ravaged Land is a very appropriate title: you really feel as though you’re witnessing the struggle for survival of Nick’s subjects.
It’s a very different sort of wildlife photography to the kind you find in National Geographic; it’s not so much reportage as the conveying of an idea and the desperation and hopelessness you feel for the animals and the people trying to protect them. Even the majestic beasts – the lions and rhinos – appear to be not so much on the attack as making one final stand. In the first half of the book, we move from a series of very intimate, human moments punctuated by some of Nick’s signature ‘side on’ style to a centre section where it appears as though the animals are trying to come to terms with what is happening to their home; elephants pondering a skull of their number. I can’t help but feel distinct shades of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother in places, especially in the photographs that include the interactions between parent and child. The end portion is simply quite depressing – animals killed and preserved by the caustic salts of a lake; game trophy heads looking out over a landscape where they once really lived; and finally, the emptiness and finality of old footprints.
Bleak and helpless doesn’t even being to describe the way you feel at the end; this is a triumph of editing* and one of the best demonstrations I’ve seen of the power of the photographic medium. It’s also clear that an enormous amount of thought and dedication has gone into the creation of the images; not just the process, but more importantly, the idea. There are two essays in front: one explaining the context of the situation in Africa and just how fast wild animal populations are declining due to poaching and infringement by man; many of the subjects in the first book are now dead, killed by poachers mainly for their ivory, but also hides or as trophies. It’s immensely sobering, but also a little hopeful since there also appears to be a strong support for the cause both on the ground and internationally, through Nick’s work.
*The proper use of the term: selection and sequencing, not postprocessing
The second essay – I am the walrus – is more interesting to the photographer, for many reasons. It’s full of insights into the creative and technical processes, no doubt questions that were posed after the impact of the first two books. Nick was a former film director who’d worked with Michael Jackson for several videos; but found that creativity-for-pay was pretty much an oxymoron (sounds familiar? Read this essay.). He struck out on his own to shoot as he pleased, with the vision of creating an elegy to the majesty of the creatures he found in Africa. I’d say he succeeded in On This Earth and A Shadow Falls. Across The Ravaged Land is both a tribute and a warning: this is what will happen if we are not careful, but there is still a chance. I feel that the three books really need to be viewed together or in close succession for the full message to come through – even in the titles: “On this earth, a shadow falls across the ravaged land.” As always, it’s proven harder to convince people upfront that there is merit – usually financial – to an idea; if you have the confidence, go out and do it, and if you try hard enough, success and awareness follow. Usually.
Much like the first book, the printing in this one is absolutely superb (see the crops). I was told** that no compromises or expense were spared in the making of these books, and it shows. Those of you who are used to seeing dithered halftone dots on photo books printed via the offset method will be very, very pleasantly surprised when you open either of Nick’s books – they’re entirely gravure, including the text pages. This means the very finest detail structures and tonal nuances are preserved, and there is an overall impression of depth and richness to the images; no doubt the choice of inks and paper (Phoenix Motion 170, I’m told) plays a big part here, too. It feels like the same baryta paper as was used in the first book; silky, smooth, with a hint of bite that compliments the grain of the film used.
Nick also uses a hybrid film-digital workflow to produce the images: they were shot on film with a Pentax 67II, and 50/100mm equivalent lenses; the negatives were then scanned and the tonal manipulations and darkroom processes (i.e. dodging and burning) made digitally in Photoshop. Interestingly, Nick tried photographing the same way with medium format digital, but abandoned it (and the much higher hit rate, which is the opposite of my experience with MF digital so far) because it felt ‘too easy’, but more importantly because “…the images were too clinical, too sterile, too devoid of atmosphere. Just too…perfect. In fact, had I photographed with a digital camera from the beginning, I’m not sure I’d have liked a single photograph that I had ever taken.” Readers of this site will know that I’ve been using this kind of workflow for my Hasselblad 6×6 negatives because of the tonal quality and degree of control/ consistency achievable; it’s nice to see that I’m not imagining things. Clearly, doing something different has resulted in something rather special. (And yes, my DSLR film scanning rig is still in the works. We’ve made some improvements to tolerances, rigidity and materials, but these of course have to be thoroughly tested before release…)
I want to end with a short thought on art – we touched on it first here, and again in this article. Nick’s work is unquestionably art. Why? Because it conveys a strong idea? Because it’s well executed? Because it’s aesthetically pleasing? All of the above, really. But because it was created without the inattention of ever being art; it was created without restriction by the photographer simply because he wanted to do it. Fortunately, he had the means to do so – and in the end, the purity of the idea comes through, unfiltered. “I have sought to photograph them not in action, but simply in a state of being.” I’d say he’s done just that. MT
**Coda: After the first review, I received a very complimentary email from Nick thanking me for my review and expressing something between relief and gratitude that the lengths he went to to get to prints right were being appreciated. A short correspondence developed, and he has very graciously agreed to an exclusive interview for the site, which will be published soon. I admit that writing the questions for that interview made me somewhat nervous, because Nick is one of my few true photographic heroes; a rockstar with integrity, talent, and beyond that, passion. In advance – thank you very much, Nick, from myself and all of the readers of my site.
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