Exclusive: an interview with Nick Brandt

_G000662 copy

After my review of his first book, 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 follows my review of the final book in the series – Across The Ravaged Land – and constitutes today’s post. 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. Let us begin.

What first made you pick up a camera?
Animals. As I write about in the essay, “I Am The Walrus”, in the new book, the animals came first, photography second. Photography was merely the best medium for me to express my feelings about animals, and the natural world.

Who are your inspirations photographically? Did you have a mentor?
No mentor. I turned to photography in my mid-thirties, and launched into it with my Pentax 67 from the outset. Re inspiration, I have always been obsessed with black and white photography, especially the early work of Steichen.

You were previously a director of music videos (including for Michael Jackson; Earth Song was what brought you to Africa in the first place). How much crossover of skills and creative vision is there between stills and video? Was it easy to make the jump?
It was easy to make the jump practically and financially, as I was fortunately cushioned by continuing to direct commercials for 2-3 years (although I was very disdainful of them). Creatively, it must have helped, yes, as I had spent my adult life working with film and image. It was also easy to make the jump because as a photographer, I felt so liberated not being answerable to anyone, being able to photograph what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. Filmmaking is fraught with endless frustration and compromise in a way that photography is not. Or at least, with the exception of the bad printing of the first two books, that is what I have been lucky to experience.

I get the feeling that photography – because images are the easiest and fastest way to make an impact – is doing more than ever as the champion of preserving the unseen. There has always been National Geographic, and of late, yourself and Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis project – do you plan to explore any other ecosystems around the world?
Not at the moment, no. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the last places on the planet where one can still view multiple species en masse in the wild. Not that I am necessarily going to photograph them any more. I may be photographing their absence, but this place just moves me on a fundamental, visceral level.

It would seem that the Far East is a large culprit in the decline of the species due to demand for ivory and other body parts; though China perhaps is going to be a challenge to educate, we must start somewhere. Do you have any plans for an exhibition in Asia to raise awareness? [I'd be the first to get on a plane to see it -MT]
I would love to, and yes, for the hopeful purpose of raising awareness. There are tentative plans for a museum exhibition in Shanghai in 2016. But by then, another 150,000 elephants will have been wiped out at the current rate of killing. Honestly, I don’t think my photos will make much of a dent. I think it would be vaguely delusional to think they could do more. But as a small cog in the wheel of awareness relating to this apocalypse, maybe the photos can add something.

Have you faced any issues travelling as a photographer? I’m thinking of problems with getting film checked, excess baggage, things going missing, and in the less savoury parts of the world, a decided reluctance to anybody perceived as being a journalist…
Getting film through airport security is a constant cause of stress, of course. I get several hundred rolls of the film down to Africa at once by getting them screened for explosives in the UK, which enables one to avoid it being x-rayed. Coming home, heart in mouth, all security people so far have agreed to hand-check the exposed rolls, even if increasingly they look at the medium format rolls with complete bewilderment. I process in the UK, as Heathrow security would never hand-check.

Is there anything you’d like to be able to do photographically that’s limited by technology?
Just that I wish my Pentax 67 had all the technical ‘aids’ that other cameras now have – I would love to have the options of auto-focus, image stabilizing lenses, continued shooting as opposed to roll out of film after 10 frames, motor drive.
But in spite of that, I choose the total impracticality of my camera because simply, when I view through the waist level viewfinder (how I use the camera), I am ‘turned on’ when I look at the image on the ground glass in a way I am not by other cameras. And I prefer film to digital, because as mentioned before, I love the surprises and imperfections that you can get with film, the unexpected ways that light will sometimes interact with the negative, whereas for black and white, and the subject matter that I shoot, I find digital too clinical, too perfect. And technically perfect is not necessarily better or more interesting.
Even with my scanner, I deliberately use a funky old 2003 model Nikon Scan 9000, which results in all sorts of imperfections (some good, some bloody irritating), rather than getting flawless drum scans.

One question from a reader: How do you prevent the shutter noise of the Pentax 67II from scaring the animals off?
Hah, yes! The 67 shutter is crazily KA-CHUNKK!! Occasionally, a lion will initially jump a little, but they quickly get used to it. No animal has been scared off.

Given your stylistic, subject and presentation choices, I’m fairly sure that you do what feels best to you – and audience expectations be damned. How do you manage the tradeoff internally between creativity, specialisation and experimentation? Do you ever feel like you need to take a break, photograph a different subject and then come back to your main work with a new perspective? How do you keep up your creative motivation?
No I never feel the need to photograph a different subject. I have obsessively pursued a single vision in the trilogy. However, in the final book, I was very relieved to break off from attempting to photograph living wild animals- with all the lack of control that means – and instead photograph controlled set-ups : the ranger series, the calcified series, the trophy series.

What is your main driver for taking the shot? What do you look for?
In the photos of the animals, I am waiting for them to present themselves for their portraits. For me, there is no difference between photographing portraits of animals and humans – I want to capture the spirit of that particular creature. The frustrating thing is that with animals I have to wait. But I never lose my patience – I always consider it something of a minor miracle (and relief) when I get that moment. But those moments are few and far between. (I shoot ridiculously little film.)

Your thoughts on the state of modern photography: proliferation of cameras, images, visual overload, Instagram and the like, social media…good, bad, anything else?
I think that I am most disturbed by the imminent demise of the Decisive Moment. By this I mean that such is the quality of video now that you can just roll video and then select a frame which will be good enough quality to print as a large fine art print. The end of the Decisive Moment.

The art world and success as in it as a photographic artist seems to be extremely hit and miss; it seems that most people protect their little fiefdoms with an iron fist. In the long run, this only harms the industry: proliferation leads to education which means unwrapping a bigger pie to be shared by all. It’s only of late that photography has really been taken seriously as an art form in its own right. Granted, there’s a lot of noise out there – the initial effort required by other art mediums usually puts people off trying to begin with – do you have any advice on how to achieve success as an art photographer?
The same as any creative endeavor – create only for yourself, never for others. Never attempt to second-guess reaction by the audience. Personally, I think that is the road to artistic mediocrity. Photograph for yourself, and hopefully people will respond to your vision of the world. That doesn’t mean that you will have success, but at least you will have died trying, and taken photos that at least you like!

Making photographs for yourself and making photographs as a business are two very different things – realistically, not all photographers can afford to be idealists. How do you manage to balance this? Where do you find the compromises?
I am obstinate and wilful , and as an indulged only child, used to getting my way. So compromises? Don’t understand the word…. Seriously, the times one compromises artistically, one invariably regrets it down the line.

Images preserve moments and ideas for posterity, but they’re all subject to the interpretative biases of the photographer. What message would you like your images to leave for future audiences?
That animals are sentient creatures equally worthy of life as us. That we need to stop destroying the natural world. Man should NOT have Dominion over Nature (the most damaging notion ever set down by mankind).

The end: if you could offer one piece of advice for a photographer, what would it be?
See above. Create for yourself, never for others.

I can only offer an enormous thank you, Nick, for your time, passion, and willingness to share that with us. We look forward to your future projects with great anticipation! MT

For more information on or to contribute to Nick’s Big Life Foundation in Africa, click here. On This Earth/ A Shadow Falls and Across The Ravaged Land are both available here from Amazon, with signed editions here from Photoeye.

____________

Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

appstorebadge

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Nick is my favorite photographer in the world. Im not “moved” by much… but his animal images are on Leonardo and Picasso levels…

  2. Thanks for a great interview and spreading Nick Brandt’s message forward.

    I have personally seen On this Earth, A Shadow Falls exhibition at Stockholm Fotografiska about a year ago. So moving images. To me it is most awesome exhibition I have seen, so far.
    By the way, Fotografiska’s web store have still this book available.

  3. Bah – Just found out the seller I ordered the book “On this earth a shadow falls” was a fake – not getting it anytime soon. And amazon dont have these in stock for yonks – Frustrating !!! Was so looking forward to it as my Christmas present to myself…

    • Ouch. I’m pretty sure there were some signed editions still available at Photoeye though.

      • yes I checked it there as well – it said they are all back ordered. Might get Across the Ravaged land in the time being… That and Genesis from SS. Workers is unreal !

        • Workers has a bit more integrity and warmth, I think. Genesis is excellent in imagery and printing, but I can’t shake the fact that it all feels a bit formulaic and well…digital. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t the kind of feel you associate with Salgado.

  4. I was so eager to go see a Nick Brandt exhibition this past October in Paris, as I own and love his books. Well, while the images sure were powerful, I was overall very disappointed with the experience. The quality of the larger prints was awful. Seing an elephant giant photo being charged 90K€ for appalling print quality was an instant turn off. I thought Mr Brandt had abandoned customer satsifaction somewhere along the way. The concept of art for art, and f…k the public is one noble thing, but when you’re pricing your work the way he does his, attention to the output quality is a must. Not such a fan any more…

  5. Remarkable images, and very moving ones. I also appreciate the efforts made to pursue impeccable quality production of the books.

    I suppose in one area I would have a measure of difference with Nick is his statement “Man should NOT have dominion over nature.” Logically I’m not sure it’s a conclusion that can be reached. And although it has the sound of a rallying cry I wouldn’t suspect that it leads in a practicable direction. Doug, “you’re failing” might be better written “mankind is failing.” So I might be somewhat more likely to agree with a modified statement, perhaps something that went more like this: “Mankind, left to its own devices of self-interest and selfishness, should not have dominion over nature.”

    • Perhaps we should read it as the end goal being a sort of sustainable symbiosis – right now that’s certainly not the case…

      • Yes, that sounds a bit more tenable although it seems hard to get completely away from the idea of humankind managing / stewarding nature and natural resources.

        Btw I forgot to mention I found it ironic to read Nick’s comments about the Decisive Moment. I’ve had the very, very similar thoughts about advances in video cheapening the value of timing in photographic work. It’s too easy to picture the stunning perfectly-timed exposures of the past being taken care of not by just by starting up the “record” button….. ( just moving up from 10 fps to 30 I suppose.)

  6. Photographers like Nick Brandt are a true source of inspiration. Maybe we can make a difference just by making people aware of what we are losing. That these animals are sentient beings worthy of respect.
    And to those who believe that god (any god) gave us humans dominion over Earth, do you realize that it may be a test. And you’re failing.

  7. andygemmell says:

    Thank you Ming and Nick. As per Nicks views, photography was secondary and the more important themes in life were evident even in this interview. Hopefully it will be enlightening enough for many to stop….smell the roses…..don’t want to buy “another” latest greatest camera and just simply make images with their imperfections and all.

    “Seriously, the times one compromises artistically, one invariably regrets it down the line.” Photographically though, this is what caught my attention. You won’t always nail it but it’s one time it’s your way or the highway. Obviously apart from the commercial world!!

  8. When an excellent photographer interviews an excellent photographer, the responses are much more revealing and coherent. Thank you for posting this.By the way, I know you have plenty of things on your plate, but I’m sure there are some magazines out there that wouldn’t mind having you as a stringer.

    • Thanks! I suppose it’s knowing your subject.

      As for magazines – I was editor of a photo magazine in Malaysia for five years; other magazines these days seem to be more interested in rehashing mediocre articles about ‘how to use digital filters to turn your crapshot into a masterpiece!’. I actually applied for a job at DPReview several times in the past when they were hiring; I never got a reply. Ironic, huh?

  9. Chris Ellison says:

    Thank you Ming for taking the time to interview Nick. Inspiring stuff.

  10. “Create for yourself, never for others”, key advice indeed.

  11. Great work Ming and thanks a lot Nick for doing it for the viewers and readers. I was terribly disappointed to miss your exhibition in Melb but hopefully will get to see some of your work in your book which is arriving soon.

    Your advice on taking photograph is spot on and actually valid for pretty much every facet of life. We do the best job when we do it for ourselves and not for others.

  12. Wonderful, thank you so much Nick for taking the time to talk to Ming, and nice job MT :)

    Even more importantly thankyou so much Nick for your incredible vision and technical mastery in producing this work. Its wonderful you mention Steichen, as one of the great appeals, to me, of your work is the feeling of classic portraiture as practised by the likes of Steichen, Bassano and Cheney-Johnston.

    Agreed Steve, those 2 sentences are key, as was the issue touched upon my Ming…the driver of much of this destruction now is the Chinese “medicine” market (and I use the quotes both as a practitioner of western medicine, but more importantly a human being and resident of Planet Earth). The sickening waste for wholly selfish gain (throughout the supply chain all the way to the “end user”) is just equal measures heart-breaking and rage-inducing. “Big Pharma” is far from snow-white, but it’s eastern counterpart is doing huge damage also, and yet hardly anyone questions it, whilst cynicism of western medicine is very much in vogue (and at least that has some valid scientific data to support it – though a large pinch of salt is often required). And with the proliferation of free cash in the Chinese economy, I don’t see the problem getting better any time soon.

    As for protecting these magnificent creatures, whilst watching a programme about the forests of Burma, I had a thought…let the world’s elite military units use these areas to practice small unit tactics (no armoured vehicles/artillery/air strikes!), if along the way they happen to track down and apprehend poachers/hunters (and the apprehension part I am flexible on personally!) great! They get to hone their skills on the most realistic of targets, and the world is a better place. Of course, international and national will, law and protective legislation are required to support this.

    • The problem is going to be getting all of the international parties involved to agree…

      • Yup…I know. But the way I see it there will have to be music to be faced at some point, Why not, for once, do it when some good can come of it? The money from these black market activities that drive all of this will stop flowing when the resources are no longer there to be exploited, and that isn’t far away. Sadly, it may be that the most pragmatic way to try and protect these resources is to make them worth more to their local populations and institutions alive than dead, so that they are incentivised to engage in the protection rather than the destruction. Of course that means global tourism which plays its own part in negatively impacting the environments and eco-systems. It would be nice to think that doing what is needed in order to protect the planet as a whole was reason enough, but I am not that optimistic by nature…

        • That’s the ONLY way to do it, I think. There are two sides to the problem: locals needing to survive, and foreign markets creating temptation. Forbidden fruit is not attractive if it is neither forbidden nor attractive, but unfortunately human nature always wants what they can’t have.

  13. Steve Jones says:

    That sentence…” By then, another 1,500 elephants will have been wiped out at the current rate of killing.” just jumps out and stuns me. As telling as any of the photographs.
    And another…”Man should NOT have dominion over nature ( the most damaging notion ever set down by mankind )” should make each and every one of us pause and reflect on what we have done and are still doing to the world. At a time when most of us photographers are obsessed with technology in our cameras more than the subject matter, there is much to be learned from what Nick has to say. Absolutely amazing interview .Making me ask myself all kinds of questions about what I’m really doing when I’m taking pictures.

    • I certainly think all of us should stop to enjoy nature a more – perhaps then it wouldn’t take a forced effort by a few to make the masses realise how valuable it is, and also how pointless coveting of objects like ivory is…

  14. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Killing pandas in China can result in death penalty. Are elephants, tigers and rhinoceros only accepted as dead ones because they are not native to that country? China has been known to be abusive on human rights but what about defenceless animal rights!

  15. Very interesting .. many things learned … Thank you for both of you.

  16. Interesting answers and very good questions. So no compromises, create for yourself!

  17. Wonderful Interview Nick and Ming! I am amazed by the wonderful compositions and photos. I really enjoyed the interview. My awareness of Ivory and other issues has greatly increased and I am now saddened when I see Ivory for sale.

    • Unable to edit comments. Sending update here.

      Wonderful Interview Nick and Ming! I am amazed by the wonderful compositions and photos. I really enjoyed the interview. My awareness of Ivory and other issues has greatly increased and I now see ivory in many places. I am shocked by the corporations that use ivory in their stores. What are the most effective laws? The US seems to go by age for African Ivory and zero tolerance for Asian Ivory…

    • Thanks Eric!

  18. Thank you, Ming, for the fantastic interview and review. Very well done!

  19. Excellent questions, excellent answers!

  20. Surprised I have not thought of this previously, though the cooperation and assistance of many individuals appear in the last book. It must be deeply emotional for those Rangers to pose with elephant tusks. Nick Brandt has made us all more aware, though those Rangers remain to do what they can to preserve nature.

    • And I think for the cause and in support of his art, he deserves all the publicity he can get. I’m happy that he agreed to the interview, and that there’s a solid audience here…

  21. Superb. Thanks for interviewing him.

Trackbacks

  1. […] post is a little different: following on from the excellent reception given to my interview with Nick Brandt, and my current focus on pushing print limits, it is high time we heard from the print master […]

  2. […] was shot at the top of Taipei 101 with a D800E and Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon; to paraphrase Nick Brandt it’s a subtle reminder that man does not have dominion over nature. We are often prisoners of […]

Thoughts? Leave a comment here and I'll get back to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,222 other followers

%d bloggers like this: