Spoiler alert: my product photos in no way do this book justice. Not even close.
This article is going to be much less of a review than a gushing of praise; if you have a single photographic bone in your body, enjoy fine art printing, or photo books, or nature, or animals, or Africa, or any combination of the above – I think you’ll be blown away by this book. And at current discounts, it’s a steal for what you’re getting. I’d actually held off writing the review for some months simply because I wanted to a) have another chance to really study the images without the initial awe (it didn’t work, the awe is still there) and b) find a way to adequately express how they make me feel, as the audience.
Nick Brandt isn’t exactly your conventional career photographer; perhaps there isn’t such a thing anyway. He actually directed a number of award-winning music videos in the early 90s for Michael Jackson, Moby, Jewel and other acts. It was on one of these shoots – in Tanzania – that he fell in love with Africa and wanted to try to capture these feelings through photography, but in a unique style. It was the beginnings of a project that would continue over a decade and span three books. Beginning in 2000, Brandt photographed extensively around East Africa; five years later, the first book was born. On This Earth, A Shadow Falls is actually a combination of the first two books – the story has it that he was not happy with the original printing of the first book, which failed to capture the tonal nuance and subtlety of the images; in the end, finding a suitable printer took so long that the second book was complete, and so they merged.
Brandt eschews traditional ‘reality’ wildlife photography for a style that’s much closer to classical large format portraiture; his animal subjects take on intimate, emotional, very human qualities that are in some ways reminiscent of the thousand-yard stares captured by Dorothea Lange. All of his subjects are wild and of course unposed; it’s not at all easy to approach them sufficiently close to frame as he’s done without spooking them, or worse, being attacked. I can only take my hat off and bow to anybody who has the cojones to photograph a lion with a normal lens mounted on a camera that probably sounds like a rifle shot when it goes off…
The images are entirely shot in black and white with some toning, supposedly on a Pentax medium format camera; I’m a little dubious of this as there are clear tilt shift movements at work in some of the images, and to the best of my knowledge there are no lenses for the 67 system that would offer these movements in the perspectives seen. Judging from the luminosity of foliage and sky also suggests that a lot of the images were shot with a combination of filters and possibly also infrared film. Regardless of the medium and method, the pictorial results are stunning: they have the right degree of organic softness to convey emotion, yet at the same time, there’s a deep richness to the tones that makes both subject and image ageless.
Viewing the images, you feel as though you’re peering into another time and world; there are times where the intensity of gaze makes it feel as though you’re the one who’s being observed, not the other way around. This is especially true of the tighter portraits of single animals; I can only imagine it would be an incredibly emotional experience to view these in a large format exhibition. Perhaps this is what Brandt was aiming at: not so much the aesthetics, which are superb, but the experience and the emotion he felt while being there.
From this perspective, just about every single image in the book is a success – no mean feat considering there are literally hundreds. Admittedly some of them feel a bit formulaic towards the end – mostly those of large groups of animals – but there are some in there which are undoubtedly destined to be future classics – the dusty elephant, for example. In places, the overall tones and aesthetic felt very close to Salgado’s work, but with perhaps a greater, more reserved majesty; you get a very real feeling of the animals’ struggle to survive in such a harsh environment.
I’d like to spend a bit of time talking about the book itself – it’s a magnificent example of what a fine art photography book should be. It’s hardcover, bound in linen with an inset cover plate, and covered over again in a hard plastic for longevity. The paper inside is exquisite; I believe it’s a variety of coated baryta. Regardless of the technicalities, it feels very much as though that paper was specifically and very deliberately selected to suit the mood Brandt was after with the subjects and compositions – it succeeds admirably. I’ve never seen such a harmonious combination of paper, tones and content in any other subject. Normally, if you put your nose up close enough to any book, you’ll begin to see the individual dots laid down by the printing process; no such thing here. Even the very finest of text appears continuous and smooth; the overall result is something that somehow manages to reproduce the tonal feel of film almost as good as an optical wet process; or at least certainly far past the point of offset or giclee printing. ‘Refined’ is the best word to describe it. I believe the book was printed with the gravure process, but I’m no expert.
A special mention must be given to the sequencing and layout of the book: it’s clearly very deliberate and well thought out. The order of the images establishes a nice rhythm that encourages your eyes to look, sip, and appreciate slowly; it’s a bit like how a brandy balloon really precludes any drinking contests. Similarly, strong images that stand alone have their own double-page spread, even if the image is only printed on one side; this removes distractions and is commendable. There are of course double-page spreads, and these look magnificent simply because of the size of the book – easily 15″ tall or thereabouts. I don’t think I can stress enough just how much of a complete, polished package this book comes across as – you get the impression everything has been very deliberately chosen to help convey Brandt’s artistic vision to its fullest. There are no compromises here. I’m looking forward to the final instalment in the trilogy, due end of this year…MT
On This Earth, A Shadow Falls is available here from Amazon.
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved