Book review: On This Earth, A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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  1. Thanks for sharing, I came to visit more often, very good

  2. Frank Bosco says:

    I obtained this book when it was first released because I loved his first volume so much. All of the accolades expressed in this blog are well deserved and more. In fact Nick Brandt’s work along with Britta Jachinski’s are one of the primary (but not only) reasons why I have not yet switched from film. I did not realize a new book from Brandt was out. Thanks for this info. I am ordering it from Amazon immediately.

  3. Hello Ming, Thank you so much for this amazing site! I ordered Nick’s trilogy on Dec 17 (through your link of course), and I’ve had Across The Ravaged Land for a while now (still unopened b/c I figured they should be experienced sequentially). I still haven’t received On This Earth, A Shadow Falls. I’m guessing you helped sell it out, as I had to give Amazon special permission to keep the order open. So I’m wondering if you have any idea what is going on with the supply, are they having to print more?

  4. Just received this book, thanks to you Ming for bringing to my attention, and I have to say I absolutely love this book! The book definitely tries to establish that each animal has a soul and I think it succeeds beyond measure. I’ll be going on my third safari in 6 months time and I will hopefully carry these images with me in my hopes to take better photographs.

  5. Reblogged this on Random Neural Firings..

  6. Nick’s photographs are nothing less than astonishing.

    Aside from their pure aesthetic beauty, these aren’t your garden variety wildlife shots. These are portraits of the animals.

    For those who believe animals possess a soul and intelligence that rivals that of human beings, Nick’s photographs bolster that case.

    Thanks for pointing out the work of a photographer who I’ve admired for the past couple of years.

  7. I’m very glad to see this because it’s not another gear review! (That said, when writing about gear you are among the few very best.) I hope this means that you will do more book reviews (or discuss the work of specific photographers) in the future. I haven’t seen any arts reviewer spot the details (such as: Brandt must use IR photography) like you did.

    I hope you are not offended if I say that I don’t admire Brandt’s African photos as much as you do. His African photos were shown at an exhibition where I live (Stockholm, Sweden). I was stunned by the first pictures, but I soon grew tired with his mannerisms. He shoots his animals like a fashion photographer shoots fashion models. After a while, the animals look just as real as if they are posing in a studio.

    Have you seen the work of Ian Teh? (Web site: His best work is perhaps “Undercurrents”, his photo reportage from China.) What is your opinion of him?

    • I write about gear because it’s very much a necessary evil: photography requires tools, and those tools are quite technical. But I think you’ll find a good chunk of philosophy and talk about the images in the archives 🙂

      Ian Teh is new to me. Not quite my taste; he somehow manages to be both loose and formalist at the same time.

      • That was a fast reply!

        I Think “loose and formalist” is a good description of him. His images may look sloppy (motion blur, etc), but images like this reveal a lot of experience and confidence, otherwise they would not be so expressive. If I tried to make similar photographs, they would just look sloppy.


  8. Hi Ming,
    Love your blog and your training videos. I have learnt a lot from you and appreciate you sharing your experiences and techniques with everyone.
    I bit the bullet and purchased the book using your link. Can’t wait for it to be delivered!


  9. Christian Robold says:

    You have tempted me Ming! I just bought the book from Amazon together with two Andre Kertesz books that I had planned to buy anyway. Looking forward to the visual and reading experience.

    • I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Enjoy!

      • Thanks for the review Ming, this is one of those times that I’m thankful for the easy reproducibility of photographs. We get to see his photos all over world without waiting for one unique artifact to move around. There’s an exhibition of his photos in LA that I must get to. There’s also a Salgado exhibition down there.

        • Okay, now I’m jealous. Brandt AND Salgado?! If you don’t go, I’ll have to fly over there and drag you myself. 😛

          • Haha, I’ll take some pictures of them with my iPhone, and apply some Hipstagram filters just for you! 😉

          • Pedro Simoes says:

            Dear MT,

            I`m new to photography and have been following your blog for a few months now. It’s rather curious how things work: I watched a very interesting interview by Sebastiao Salgado these days and thought you and your readers would be the kind of audience that might enjoy it. A couple days later you review Nick Brandt’s (fantastic!) work and some remarks about Salgado start showing up.

            It’s a shame the interview does not have English subtitles. I`m thinking of doing the subtitles myself so more people can watch it. Just need to take a deep (deeeeep) breath, it’s 90′ long…

            To those who can understand Portuguese, it’s at (or just search for “Sebastião Salgado Roda Viva” at

            A really short teaser I thought you might find interesting, since you often come back to the relationship between art and photography:
            “Many photographers say they are artists. I`m not an artist, absolutely! I call myself a photographer, as it is a privilege to be a photographer. The opportunities you have to know, to see, to take part…. To actually connect your life to the historic moment you are living in – and at its [the historic moment] peak!”

  10. I bought this book after seeing your facebook recommendation some time ago – one look at it and I knew I’d love it. Wonderful, wonderful book and completely unique, I’ve never seen wildlife photography like this. His whole outlook is based around getting up close and personal, no long lenses, photographing these beautiful animals as carefully considered portraits in the context of their natural, often spectacular environments.

    I’ve left this book out and can’t help but browse the images every time I walk past it.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  11. NIck Brandt is amazing. I saw his exhibit at SF-MoMA a year or two ago. The elephant drinking at the water was blow up and framed 6 to 8 feet tall and just blew you away. I didn’t know you could print that size from a medium format.

  12. Dear Ming,
    I’ve been a fan and patron of yours for some time now. I was blown away at the ironic coincidence that you would choose Nick Brandt’s book for a (rare) review. I was at the photographic museeum in Stockholm just after he had an exhibition there (which I missed) and saw this book in the museum store. The ones they had were signed by Mr Brandt and a bit pricey. However, after having thumbed through this there was absolutly no way I couldn’t buy it. I mean if you enjoy photography in any way, this is a must have. I totally agree with every word you wrote in praise of this piece of work. It seems as though the animals were posing for him. He produced portraits of individuals with their own personalities (while in the wild), not just generic animals. To all out there: give te text a read as well as it deepens the meaning of the book. Thanks again Ming for spreading the word.

  13. hi again ming, how do you think that nick was able to take those photos?

  14. hi ming, i want to thank you for your generosity. things i did not know before i do now because of your capacity to share. thanks very much. calvin yee.

  15. I have attempted to unsubscribe several times, please remove me from your email list!!

  16. Ron Scubadiver says:

    This guy is very good, and I am familiar with his work. I have one shot of giraffe where I attempted to pick up a bit of his style.

  17. Ian Christie says:

    See Nick B’s excellent website – and I especially recommend reading his sobering, grim but ultimately inspirational words here:
    Please consider supporting some of the conservation initiatives he mentions on the website. The biggest priorities are:
    1) Find ways to cut and eliminate demand for ivory and other poached animal parts, which are NOT any good for the folk medicine and virility-boosting potions for which, unforgivably, the creatures are killed en masse.
    2) Increase the pay and resources of anti-poaching teams – and find ways to make it more worthwhile for poachers and farmers to protect the animals instead of killing them.

    • There’s something incredibly ironic about the whole thing: by taking and showing us images of such beauty, he’s actually simultaneously showing the glory of nature while revealing the incredible evil that humankind is capable of. Whether that was his overall intention or not I don’t know, but that’s the lasting impression I get.

      • Ian Christie says:

        Thanks Mark. I think that is right. The portrait shots remind me powerfully of late-19th century sepia images of the remaining Native American tribes or of warriors from similarly doomed Patagonian peoples. The message is that these could be the last of their kind – survivors (so far) of a war on their world that has been all too successfully waged. We have time to do the right things still. But it is getting short.

    • R.V. Abbott says:

      Wonderful images, although I disagree about the proposed solutions.

      What you see here is a classic tragedy of the commons. Since nobody has any property rights in the animals, nobody has any economic incentive to preserve them. In fact, poachers have a perverse incentive to overhunt in order to get their share before the others. A free market alternative is actually to create an environment in which someone has property rights in the animals–like a managed reserve. If some person or group has actual property rights in the animals, they have an actual incentive to keep out poachers and prevent overhunting in order to avoid exhausting their resource.

      This approach has actually been successfully employed to prevent overfishing on coastal waters in Alaska, and a number of countries such as New Zealand, and is also promoted by the United Nations. See

      The sad reality is that humans are corrupt and greedy, and you only need a handful of people to wreck things. A brief look at the 20th century proves that this is the case. The solution is not to try to overcome human nature (a hopeless endeavor), but to leverage man’s profit motive for the better.

      • Human nature will do everything it an to exploit, destroy, profit and self- promote at the expense of others. Sad, but true. At least Brandt is doing something in his own way to promote awareness of the problem, but ultimately I don’t know if it makes anything better since it glorifies the problem in a way…

      • Ian Christie says:

        Thanks. It is a tragedy of the commons for sure. But the answer is to devise community-based approaches to management and conservation so that , as you say, local people have a stake in the sustainability of wildlife and habitats. The tragedy of the commons is rarely resolved by privatisation or state appropriation of resources – it is often made worse. See Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 1990.

        • “The tragedy of the commons is rarely resolved by privatisation or state appropriation of resources – it is often made worse.”
          Thanks for the insightful comment and the reference tip – I’ll be sure to check it out.

  18. Wow. I’m blown away. I’m putting this on my Amazon wish list.

    And, no one asked this question, but I’m pretty sure that everyone would agree that this is art–well, except perhaps for life members of the Lonely Curmudgeons Club.

  19. The third in the trilogy is now out – “Across the ravaged land”. Equally stunning, if more depressing in its subject matter. In it, surprisingly, he does discuss technique as well as what equipment he uses (Pentax 6×7). And yes, in the past he has “free lensed”, BTW, he tried digital and went back to film. He says he likes the slight imperfections of film versus the “perfect” digital. In talking to him in person in NYC, he also told me that somehow the film gave the subject more “gravitas”. Another gear note: he only has two lenses – the 105/2.4 and a 200mm (normal and slight portrait on 6×7).

    I admire him not only for his photography, but for the action he took in helping to stop the poaching epidemic in Kenya. Most photographers are passive observers with their subject, yet he’s standing up for the injustices.

    • I’ve pre-ordered but mine hasn’t shipped yet – hopefully it’ll be waiting for me when I return from Europe. Very much looking forward to the final book…

  20. Those look quite inspirational, even as a “mere” product shot (and you’re too modest about that). Will definitely have to look into getting a copy. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

    • Unfortunately, these don’t even come close to doing the images and prints justice – Amazon seems to be doing them at a very good discount, though I suspect after this post there may not be that many copies left…

  21. Hi Ming,

    I have seen his book at a store many months ago, but prior to it have seen really large prints of some of Brandt’s iconic images at a gallery. They are indeed awe-inspiring, very life-like. Nice review from you as well.


  22. Hugh Maaskant says:


    I had to look at the book on Amazon, saw a few photos there (the line of elephants !) and bought it – my wife says I have to wait till Christmas befor I can open it but I’m sure it will be worth the wait J.



  23. Ian Christie says:

    Thanks for this fine review – Nick Brandt deserves all the praise he gets for this great body of work. But we should spend some time on the implications of his title: a shadow falls. He is drawing attention to the appalling decline in African wildlife as a result of the loss of habitat, poaching, climate change and competition for land from farmers (and I am not blaming the farmers). The shadow over the book, and over us all, is the prospect that in a few decades’ time no-one will be able to take similar photographs – because we will have wiped out so many species, an irrevocable act. The Brandts of the future, if they exist, will have to take pictures in zoos. So Nick’s great book is not just a wonderful work of art, it is a call to action – if you cherish what he has documented and transformed into art, then don’t just admire the images, demand political action to conserve the rich wildlands and creatures of the Earth. It is not yet too late; we can do it; it is comparatively cheap to do it; we just need the willpower.

    • Hear hear.

    • I’m adding one more comment to this.

      Though it’s not the most popular thing in the world, it doesn’t change that on technical reasons nuclear energy is our best option, if we wish life as it is or one this level, for the next few decades until we can solve how to contain fusion or better harness the abundance of ambient energy around us without requiring costly [and often polluting, themselves] materials to enable it.
      For most, this can only be a philosophical viewpoint or dinner table proposition. I’m a Chemical Engineer and have the education and training to actually do something about my beliefs. Most Chemical Engineers work for big petroleum companies — and I have too — but for the above ideological reasons I changed sector and went into nuclear energy: starting from scratch, effectively [not absolute zero, but you know what I mean]. To do something, not just talk about it.

      I truly think that the consumptive life as we know it has to stop. It takes water to make concrete: think how much concrete is all around you right now. That is a scary amount of water bound up and not in the cycle. Think of all the copper for power lines, the ores in the steel and the staggering amount of plastic, just choking everything to death. Those plastic bags we all get from the supermarket are meant to be used for minutes, hours; yet take decades to biodegrade. It is selfish greedy nonsense. Has to stop. As Ian says, we can do it.

      • It will stop. The consumers already outweigh the creators; there are limits to how much we can physically make and consume; it’s reaching a critical point – probably within our lifetimes – and it’s not because of resources, I think it’s actually because of consumer impatience and shrinking attention spans.

      • Hey Tom, seeing as we have you talking about the topic of nuclear energy I figured take the opportunity to get some information from a trusted source! I think I can understand the basic premiss that nuclear energy is capable of producing large amounts of energy far more efficiently than other means that are currently available. It is relatively safe when all things go as planned, but when things go south (say Fukushima) it would seem that things can spiral out of control in major way. I guess the question I have is where does the truth lie? It’s my personal philosophy to view information from the perspective of “Believe nothing and you are free to question everything.” After a time small grains of “truth” relative to my basic understanding generally present themselves, but I’m no expert in nuclear energy, and any small portion of the “truth” remains hidden to me. The spread of in formation I see goes from the mainstream media stating “All is well. Remain calm.” to the conspiracy theorist reports of “F**K! We’re all gonna die!!!!” So I guess I’m asking your opinion on the whole Fukushima fallout? Is the fallout being over played by the alternative media? To some degree I imagine so, but how many cumulative events can we sustain?

        I’m completely and totally with you on consumptive life and the fact that it has to stop. There is a prophecy credited to the Cree Indians that goes something like this….

        “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”

        And an other quote that I can’t pin down or credit a source……

        “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.”

        • Hi Jeff,

          Sorry for the late reply—been out with the wife and kids to the zoo today!
          [Fitting place to go in a way… and so sad to think this is the prison that awaits the animals if we destroy their real and natural homes]

          Believe it or not, this is the one area where I really endeavor to keep my mouth shut. Not on zoos, on nuclear 🙂 I do that for two reasons: one, more than confidence, I have scientific certainty [as far that goes] in the merits of nuclear power and am happy to leave it that (the plants to produce it, as any plant, are limited in their operational safety only by the people that man them, and the governments that regulate them—people are always the weak link); two, I’ve learnt that debating nuclear power [I know that’s not what you’re after, but this comment may well invite it] is a fruitless task. Just better left alone.

          This said, you know how I love conversation. And you’re a pal. So here we go 🙂 Your questions:

          1) “Nuclear is safe; nuclear will be the end of us” –> where does the truth lie?

          Actually a supremely difficult question, Jeff. But before I say why—let’s just be aware that ionizing radiation is all around us, always has been, always will be and we are radioactive ourselves. I’ve often found with my family and friends, who aren’t scientifically literate, there’s a feeling of foreign or alien-ness with nuclear power and radiation. Like we’re messing with something unnatural. Nothing could be further from the truth. The funniest thing [ultimately not funny and most trying to my patience, if I’m honest] to me is the Greens, who should be this energy’s greatest champions but are actually its greatest enemies. Beggars belief. But back to your question Jeff, it’s a difficult one because so much of the science of how ionizing radiation affects our biology is basically informed guesswork. Less than lethal doses — “LD50” etc — and which effects are which is all up in the air: the effects of radiation in this non immediately lethal domain are called “stochastic” [probabilistic in nature]. There are all sorts of effects, but typically we’re looking at long term maladies as a result of genetic degradation [degradation in a cell’s instruction set] which gives rise to cancers; but it is very hard to tie down the cause of a cancer. We’re into “there’s a 60% chance it was this, 30% it was this, 10% it was this, etc.” Yes, you can choose the most likely possibility and say it was that, but would you like the death penalty, for instance, administered like this way? Certainty, or should I say, certainty past rigorous error margins, is what we want. [and can’t get]
          On the reporting of stochastic results [the probability ones] there is another spanner in the works—methodology. Great chance for human error/model error etc. “Anti” people can commission studies with the statistics loaded to report results they’d like; the “pro” camp could do the same. Please note the use of “can” and “could” there. So it’s guesswork. But all scientific knowledge — even hard mechanics [physics of billiard balls etc] — is guesswork, please take that into account.
          I used to work with radiation instruments: from the very, very big ones [banks of full body detectors, a few million dollars a pop for one of them] to the small: little strips of special plastic worn in a badge to track how many neutrons pass through your body. As part of that specialism, I obviously had to learn how we measure ionizing radiation. And what I found there, after numerous courses and seminars from the HPA in England to Karlsruhe in Germany, is that we are all still learning how to measure [correctly] ionizing radiation’s effect on the human body. The human body is mostly water, so most of the basic models assume what effect [how much energy] a certain exposure of ionizing radiation would have on a comparable volume of water –> and correlate that energy transmission 1:1 onto humans. Models and our test apparatus is evolving and the ICRP [a UN institution, and despite “anti” proponents best attempts to paint the ICRP otherwise, it’s basically a collection of scientific anoraks only interested in the science and the research and the data—I know, I’ve visited their head office once. It is also full of the ambitious and self-centered PhD types, but even they aren’t the corporatist new-world-order types antis wish they were] so the ICRP now uses what it calls a “phantom,” a mock up of a human body, matched for local tissue densities and size and weight, etc., to a real human body –> this is what they do the “how much radiation imparts how much energy?” tests on, and tie it to models of dose. As I say, mk.I of the phantom was a vat of water [and it was still prettay prettay close to the newer answers!].
          We can only measure from one point, practically—in real life on a plant I mean; you couldn’t have workers clad head to toe in detectors] but ionizing radiation propagates in three dimensions and from all angles: a detector on your chest is not going to detect very well something coming at your heels, etc. So the metrics for measuring radiation dose are all full of the engineer’s best friend: fudge factors. You might have a radiation detector that reads out a nice clean dose rate numeral on an LCD display; but what we have to appreciate is, that number has been calculated on the back of all this phantom stuff and the fudge factors—it’s just a guess. And that’s for radiation outside the body, hitting you. What happens if you ingest some radioactive material is yet more difficult still and while our models are radically better than anything we had even two decades ago, they are still pretty rough and ready [to my eyes]. The difficult bit is after ingestion we have two areas of confusion: how radiation affects tissue; how certain elements and molecules move through the human body. These are tiny, tiny things we’re talking about. Sometimes they diffuse the walls of tissue, sometimes they get lodged on something, sometimes they pass straight through you. Very very hard to accurately, and consistently, model.

          So it is difficult to approach the word “safe” here.

          Large doses of ionizing radiation are obviously not good. But we can’t very well do a test to see how much radiation it takes to kill the average person [and there are many different types and exposure routes to test]. You might get permission for that experiment [and the number of subjects you’d need] in Hitler’s Germany, but thankfully not much luck in today’s enlightened times! We have some data from the Hiroshima bombs; patchy information from Chernobyl, and so on… but in the case of the bombs we’re talking a sudden unprotected exposure to massive, massive amounts of ionizing radiation: very different and not properly comparable with the models we need; in the case of Chernobyl, the Soviet authorities actively destroyed information rather than preserve it, and the paucity of scientific-grade info there is a shame. So we don’t have much useful information at the high dose end of the scale. What we do is kill animals with radiation and extrapolate like results for the human case. There’s no reason to seriously doubt those results. At any rate, what I said stands—large doses of ionizing radiation are obviously not good for us.
          There are basically no opportunities for this sort of large exposure to happen in today’s station environment—loss of containment has been reduced to being possible only by mechanical failure through ill maintained equipment, or natural disaster on a catastrophic scale. Both are more than one in ten-housand probabilities. One is human negligence; the other a feature of life on Earth. And the first one is obviously very strictly watched by a country’s enforcement authorities. If a reactor vessel fails in that way—it says a million times more about the government in the country of operation than the reactor design or the industry in general.

          So people are the most dangerous thing in regards to this power source. If we were to make the argument “yes, so that’s why we shouldn’t have nuclear plants—people can’t be trusted,” I’d return that it then doesn’t make sense, considering the number of industrial accidents, deaths, environmental pollution and social damage [think indigenous peoples moved on because they live over an oil deposit, etc] because of people, to continue with other power sources, either; in fact, they are much higher up the priority list on these terms. Why aren’t we shutting coal stations down for instance? which by the way don’t put proper radionuclide filters on their exhaust stacks and so pump out a serious number of Becquerels [count of nuclear material] into the environment. Unchecked, unregulated. To give you an idea, a nuclear station would lose its site-license indefinitely if it once put out even a hundredth of the activity [nuclear activity] that coal stations routinely do. But the radionuclides in coal are what we call NORM [naturally occurring radioactive material], i.e., non-refined activity, so it doesn’t raise eyebrows [it should].

          So I guess I’m asking your opinion on the whole Fukushima fallout? Is the fallout being over played by the alternative media? To some degree I imagine so, but how many cumulative events can we sustain?

          Well, the media has completely lost the plot and forgotten its place in the world I think, hasn’t it. And can’t be trusted for an opinion on anything. Because they overplay everything; ignore important things, report the unimportant… they no longer flatly give us news, they give us “stories” now. The newscasters used to be boring people who were gifted with clear voices and good concentration; they are now superstars with great hair and adverts for their show. I think we have a culture thesedays of reveling in panic, one step removed. A kind of pretend game, as if we were in the middle of a crisis ourselves [a comment on how safe life is for us]. We love the panic—especially good when it’s somewhere we know or is reasonably close and we can get all dramatic and serious about it, but secretly know we’re safe and it wasn’t our back yard. I think we see the media enjoying this aspect of the Fukushima meltdown—the real story, as it always is, is the collusion of government and private business, one being undiscernable from the other. When that happens, we [the general populace] lose. Always.
          I don’t keep up with alternative news, but if it is anything with a “eco” or green leaning, I’d just write off anything they do on nuclear power and Fukushima. From a technical stand point, that is.
          I read the updates on it from the ICRP website—that’s the only source to trust, but I appreciate this isn’t the answer for everyone. In your case Jeff, I’d stick to your very good and noble standpoint—stay neutral, read as much as you can, make your own mind up. Then change it with more, better info.

          The technical answer for how many cumulative events can we sustain is difficult for the reasons outlined above. But also because we don’t understand any lasting damage from previous disasters. There have been so few and the effects are always small in scale enough to be stochastic and therefore very tough for the biologists and statisticians to tease out for us. How many people died from cancer thanks to Chernobyl is as ridiculous a debate now as “is there a God?” or “Guns should be banned.” There is so much misinformation, bad science and bad scientists involved, I think the neutral estimate on it is now impossible.
          But to give you an idea, my idea, about these disasters consider this… The toxic chemicals from the BP Gulf of Mexico spill will remain toxic for eternity, unless some kind organisms reprocess the molecules for us and make them something else and something safe. Radioactive materials can stay active for a very very long time, sometimes hundreds of thousands of years, but unlike toxic chemicals not so forever. The more dangerous nuclides are the more active [radiologically active] ones, but because of the way the physics works, the more active nuclides decay away quicker [that’s what the activity is, the atoms are changing configuration –> into different atoms, and kicking out the difference in mass and binding energy as photon energy or particles or both]. Think “the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.” So the nuclides that people may scare us with, about how long they remain radioactive, aren’t really the ones we should talk about –> the stuff that decays quick and is very active, the fizzy stuff, that’s what we should talk about. Though we worry about both, of course. No one more than those in the nuclear industry. Genuinely.

          I’ve worked in nuclear and can tell you, in my experience at least, no one is more worried about radiation — interested in researching and understanding and better mastering it — than the nuclear industry and the professionals that run it. It’s not like that top to bottom. Most of the technicians are just regular guys who wanted a steady job and lived in the area of a station. They lean a little of the science to be able to do their jobs—but rarely have an interest in it. Fair enough too. They, like everyone, though are rigorously safe. While I’m there, on the people, let me remind everyone that the immediate areas around plants are always the most pro-nuclear. Because of all the jobs and money and community [people] it brings, yes; but also for trust –> many of these stations have been running for decades, without incident, and local communities are well sold on the safety aspect. Compare this to how locals feel about fracking in their fields or chemical plants near their beaches, etc. The nuclear fuel cycle is strictly watched and regulated from refinement to disposal—it’s not water tight, not run by robots, but it’s as good a process as there is: even trivial waste, stuff that has merely passed through a reactor building, is better watched over and guarded than the gold in Fort Knox. It’s laughable that petroleum can do something like what happened in the Gulf Mexico — not even the first time a spill has ever happened in the history of petrochemicals, remember! — and does not get shut down there and then. From the perspective of people working in nuclear it’s just baffling how other industrial sectors don’t get as tightly scrutinized, when they are so obviously doing a bad job. Anyway, I’ve done the classic Tom drifteroo there…

          I’m not sure how many meltdowns we can sustain. None would be my default answer, therefore.
          [I’d also invite the question, how many Gulfs of Mexico can we sustain? How much more coal burning can we sustain? And when I say we, I mean the animals in Nick Brandt’s book, too.]

          But just on the theme of your question, Jeff. Honestly, I think the biggest two problems are general scientific illiteracy: people don’t even know what radiation is—and I don’t mean thickos and the working class. If you know someone with a bit of science, ask them what radiation is. I bet you they um and ah and can’t give you a short sharp answer. The longer they talk, the less they know. Following from this first problem, the second: the media’s total inability to report on the sciences well. It’s shocking how many Fukushima articles were written by humanities graduates and just got things terribly wrong. And sad because that’s what sticks. Even writers with some scientific training, as the above test illustrates, seem to have basic conceptual difficulties, to my eye. And this isn’t easy stuff, to be fair. The hardest thing with being a champion of nuclear, why I won’t ever really get into it, is you need hours sometimes years to explain some of the concepts; but the audience is uninterested in dry science and demands soundbite sized information. And this is the problem, it’s a PR battle [the technical battle is won, hands down, in nuclear’s favor. No one with any scientific rigor could deny it].

          So to wrap up… I’d say that it’s obviously not as dangerous as some would like us to think: the day the tsunami and earthquake hit, some plant workers on a stricken Nisseki oil refinery lost their lives in a fire; no one died due to radiation exposure in Fukushima. They still haven’t. But it’s also self-evidently dangerous stuff—the minute we’re lax, bad things can happen. Forced to choose between a petroleum fire or a core meltdown, I think we’d all take the fire [though these aren’t commensurate: how about between all the oil spill between Chernobyl and now, or the one meltdown at Fukushima? I’d take Fukushima in that case]

          Anyway, I can’t afford it this month, but I’m buying this book too! Don’t let the kids and their pens near it!! 😀

          P/S Cree Indian quote is truth, unvarnished. So people will probably try and neutralize it with jokes or irony or put it in the box of quaint things indigenous people say… If we could ever figure out how to live without money, that would be the age to live in!

          • Extended and educated comments like this are why I love my audience 🙂

            Just one interruption from my side: surely those who actually work in the plants have the most vested interests of all to keep the damn things safe since they are the ones who are there all the time, regardless of whether things are working ‘normally’ or not?

            • Correct!

            • I agree Ming. The audience here is amazing. I am always in awe of the amount of information that appears here below the line. I never managed to comment on the last post, but I revisited multiple times just to keep up and learn from the discussion. Awesome.

          • Hey no worries on the late reply Tom. The reply was worth the wait! Awesome amount of information that really helped clear up some of the questions I had. It’s great to get the perspective from someone in the know. Thanks for that. I also appreciated you bringing up the Gulf oil spill. F*****g amazing what BP got away with. Tragic. Anyways thanks for giving me much to think about.

            • You’re most welcome, Jeff. I actually scrubbed what I’d originally written and wrote something else [the above] sticking to quite general terms [to my mind]. In the first try, I’d written a load on the radiation hazard of Tritium, as an example, and radioactive equilibrium with mixes of nuclides, and stuff like this [though still entry level for the field]. Probably a good decision to deep six it. It would just confuse the issue and come off like showmanship; plus, to properly appreciate the points, I’d need to give you something like a treatise length post—and that really would be self-important, I was just a regular engineer in the industry, a jobber and an also-ran!

              I’m way better at being a hot-air merchant in the advertising industry 😀

        • Jeff,

          A quick P/S for you. It has just struck me that I probably didn’t address your first query.

          I can understand the basic premiss that nuclear energy is capable of producing large amounts of energy far more efficiently than other means that are currently available. It is relatively safe when all things go as planned, but when things go south (say Fukushima) it would seem that things can spiral out of control in major way. I guess the question I have is where does the truth lie?

          On meltdowns, yeah when things go south like that, it’s not good news at all. So we don’t want that to happen. Design engineers and regulators work really hard on plans for that not happening. We can design — and we have designed — new reactors to the best possible spec to avoid this: but it takes a hell of a lot of money and time to get one of them done. Ultimately political indecision and cowardice is what gets in the way of new build. So the more common mode is to try and improve what we already have. And this is where more money and time is spent [unfortunately].
          An aside: Reactors are quite similar to planes. Both aviation and nuclear are very safety oriented industries—there’s no room for error: when it does go wrong, people will die. And they both have huge fixed operating costs. Operating lifespans are similar. How long do you think a 747 is good for? About 50 years? Likewise a nuclear reactor [so you can quickly imagine there are a lot of reactors coming to the end of their working lives].

          So a massive amount of thought, design, proposal and permission has gone into the operation of a nuclear plant. Engineers have thought of and designed, as far as is practicable, for every possible emergency they could think of. And it’s passed muster with the engineers and scientists working on the regulation side. This body of operating instructions and courses of action and safety measures is recorded and works as an official document, called The Safety Case. This is what a station stands on.

          So when something like Fukushima happens, that’s a sequence of events so improbable and unexpected that they haven’t been catered for — or anticipated — in the safety case; and the regulators have agreed with that call.

          This is the general reason that meltdowns are so very, very rare. Much more rare than plane crashes—and aviation is allowed to use “fly by wire” computer technology in their safety systems, which greybeard regulators still deny nuclear. If we had that, we’d be even safer. This gives you an idea how rigorously thought out safety cases are. It’s practically impossible to go wrong. Yet, it can and will go wrong as it did Fukushima.

          Was that the fault of the reactor?
          The regulators? [c.f., rubber stamping of the safety case; maintenance of the facility]
          The site licensee? [TEPCO]

          Bits of all three—with massive weight toward the last two. In my opinion, you can think of those two as almost the same thing. Like ex-bankers working in banking regulation… we saw what that did for economics in 2011. So TEPCO, the Japanese Government, we saw what that did for Fukushima [a fate more or less sealed when they approved the safety case, and built the plant].
          Reactor designs are better or worse. I shan’t comment on the taurus design at Fukushima as I’ve never been around them much; I visited a station in Finland once which used a very similar design—originally an American spec, if I remember correctly. Might have been GE [not Westinghouse]. I worked on an AGR [Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor], a very idiosyncratic design and they only ever built two. The cooling gas on them is carbon dioxide, so just on first principles, you’re not going to get many fires with that [the designer’s biggest fear at the time, after the fire at Windscale]. AGR were a failed model, ultimately, very expensive and impractical to run, though technically excellent [high thermal efficiency and excellent safety case]. Basically an example of what happens when you let the anoraks design a station [what they did!]. They went back to practical engineer designed stations after that 🙂
          I’ve also worked on the more standard reactor design: PWR [pressurized water reactor]. They are reliable and well understood: the biggest threat to the safety case there is the coolant, the pressurized water, boiling. Similar thing happened at Fukushima [loss of coolant].

          Nuclear reactors [any power reactor really] are just glorified kettles. Machines for making steam. We want steam to drive turbines, turbines give us electricity. Just like there’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s more than one way to boil up some water. So the measure to keep in mind when you’re looking at all these different generation methods and the arguments for/against them, is the cost per per volume of steam produced. And not just the financial cost—decide your own metrics, is it worth the environmental degradation for the KWs of power from the steam from burning brown coal, China’s favorite, for example? Not in my opinion.

          Anyway, hope this helps a little. Once we’ve lost control of a fission reaction, that’s the ball game. But loss of control can only happen, by definition in a situation no-one has put controls in for. So thinking of every situation, and catering for it in the design is the key. When something melts down, it’s not because the reactor is unsafe, per say; it’s more likely something no-one, not even the regulators, saw coming.

          Save massive natural disaster, people really are limiting factor on the safety.

          • Sorry for all the italics there Jeff. Must have forgot to close the tag on your original quote. Apologies –> time for bed I think 🙂

            • Was probably not closing the tags on at all


              • Tom thanks for putting things out there in layman’s terms! My brain will hurt less! That’s not to say I wouldn’t be up for the challenge, but I think it’s safe to say I was able to process more information the way you proceeded. As far as you providing too much information and that coming off as showmanship…… Well let just say this…One does not ask Tom Liles a question that is right in his wheelhouse and expect a short simple answer!! I was prepared and you didn’t disappoint!

                “Save massive natural disaster, people really are limiting factor on the safety.” I couldn’t agree more. I think you covered all the major points as to why this is and I don’t think that it is limited to only nuclear energy. The other factor I see affecting things is a lack of long term vision by those in charge. It’s seems the only concern is next quarters profits, or the next election. There is danger in this type of thinking when it the sole driving force.

                Well that’s all I have at the moment….. Fortunately it appears we did not stir up a heated debate! Oh yeah, don’t worry about all the italics. We’ve talked about this before, I more literate person may have taken more notice but I’m not that sophisticated and wasn’t thrown in the least!!!

          • This brings up the next natural question: what are we going todo with all of the still-radioactive bits of the decommissioned reactors? We can’t just stick them in a desert graveyard in Nevada like old airplanes…

            • Sink them to the bottom of the ocean. Really. This is the technical answer, and I’ve read the proofs of it. It is literally water tight. The reason we can’t do it: political will/public perception. That’s all.

              • Tom, aren’t there reactors that will ingest the waste products of the fission process used in current reactors?

                • You mean those things that vitrify the waste/ parts/ whatever and turn them into inert bricks? I believe the bricks are not fully inert but less hazardous and unlikely to splinter/ spread other bits of leftover material, but I also remember reading the process is slow and costly.

                  • That could be it but my memory is fuzzy. I was under the impression that you could still get useful energy out of the current waste products with different fission processes.

                    • Quite possibly: the current fission process doesn’t use most of the material, if I’m not mistaken. But since the other radioactive by-products are more stable, higher activation energy is required to split them further. I’d imagine this has some significant impact on efficiency and engineering demands of higher temperatures etc.

                    • Hi Andre, yes Hitachi had a very interesting process plant which takes spent fuel from the current u-235 cycle and purportedly consumes it, liberating yet more energy and leaves almost no waste leftover. I first heard about this technology around four years ago—I still haven’t seen a real life one or learnt more about the process—but I’d be a bad witness on that, my speciality wasn’t reactor design or fuel dynamics. Honestly it was all I could do to try understand the forty year old station and process I worked on: these are HUGE installations and I doubt anyone person could understand it all. I was friendly with an old chap who’d worked the fueling machine since the seventies, and felt after forty years and a few years until retirement that he finally understood it, and its connected services, properly! All these domains are literally mini-plants in themselves and there’s not much time to be bothered about much else…
                      So I think academics or research guys might be way more up that reactor than people in the industry.

                      But yes, you can certainly get useful energy out of the waste with low temp, high efficiency h/x equipment. But I’d doubt you’d get process grade steam from it. To give an idea of the in/out temps for the pressurized steam at the plant I worked at: about 350C at the cold side, and about 650C at the hot. You’re not going to achieve those target temps or that delta with spent fuel, so I’d expect any process using them to be quite different. But yes, absolutely—the first teacher I had on spent fuel, a doctor at the HPA in the UK, encouraged us to stop using the word “waste” in connection with spent fuel. That is precious material in many ways.

                      I misunderstood MT’s post actually [was at a family bbq all day today and rushed a sneaky look at the blog in while no-one was looking and rifled a comment off 🙂 ]; but the debris of decommissioned plant goes to various storage destinations depending on its activity. High level stuff, say the core of a reactor, wouldn’t be touched until well into the future; until then it is already safely contained in the reactor vessel. My thing about sinking stuff to the bottom of the ocean was a different answer—*the* answer for high activity, vitrified remains of spent fuel. At the deepest parts of the ocean the sheer weight of water bearing down and density of it makes for as good a shield as can be found on planet Earth—-way better shield than lead, it goes without saying. There are no currents and no worry of stuff drifting where it shouldn’t [and this is *very* heavy metal to begin with, so the idea it’s going anywhere is silly] and no ecosystem to damage as much as we risk doing with other solutions [and other forms of energy generation]. It really is very simple and pilot tests done over years and years now, with inert heavy metals have born the plan out—-but it just could never happen. Even people in nuclear know it couldn’t: the image of tipping spent fuel over the side of a boat is just too provocative and no amount of sense would convince people otherwise. Politicians wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

                      There is also a lot of hope for the Thorium cycle. Though I’m quite skeptical about scaling this to process level. It has been shown to work in University concept reactors [and way back too] but these are quite different and the running of them at the level currently proven is obviously worlds apart compared to a full scale power generating installation. Rather than a few tens of people looking after one; we’d be talking about a few thousands of people—the scope for disaster ramps up exponentially. Plus the whole legal and regulatory framework is different. What is OK to do in a Uni lab, is definitely NOT kosher on an industrial scale. But for me the sticking point is the liquid sodium salt coolant—yes, a brilliant way for switching the reaction on and off and making the reactor inherently safe. Now, how do we think pumps and things fare with salt going through them! I think we’d have a fair bit of rusty process equipment knocking about the place in no time at all 🙂 I shouldn’t joke about it, though, the Thorium cycle would be great. But it would have to be spectacularly great for someone to drop the amount of up front capital required to commission and run it and service it, from scratch. The Chinese and the Indians have been trying to scale it for ages: that they still don’t have a commercial plant going says it all, I think.

                      My fingers were crossed for fusion, for a while. But I’ve taken quite a misanthropic turn these last few years and now wish we don’t get there [containing the fusion is the engineering problem; not achieving it]. Why? Oh, I think it would be the worse thing ever for this planet if we got an unlimited energy source—-just think how quickly we’d destroy everything and overproduce until the planet choked. Now is not the time. I think fusion should be there for us when we’re ready to be responsible with the great power it offers.

                      Overtones of Uncle Ben from SPIDERMAN or what!

                    • Tom, thanks very much for the detailed reply. A friend’s wife used to help manage an oil refinery, and the sheer scale of that operation is mind-boggling! I can’t imagine how much more complicated a nuclear plant might be especially when people worry more about them even if an oil refinery accident can be just as devastating.

                      Another friend is part of the gigantic hot fusion team at a national lab, and from what he’s told me, I don’t think we’ll be having unlimited energy anytime soon. American fusion research is apparently mostly about better understanding bombs. 😦

                      That is an interesting perspective of yours though. I’d never thought about it like that, but I definitely understand your logic. I wonder if it comes to pass, will practical fusion represent a bigger moral and political dilemma than atomic energy was some 70 years ago.

                      BTW, cars and bikes have been using liquid sodium-filled valve poppets for a long time now, so I think the engineering to make them durable is probably a well-known thing.

                    • Fusion is an interesting engineering challenge. Quite often, in-fact nearly always, engineers have a natural analogue from which to copy, or at least use as a jump off point. There is none for fusion. No contained example of fusion in nature—all we have are stars, which are self-evidently unrestrained balls of awesome fusion energy! I don’t fancy recreating the sun here on planet Earth.

                      So it will be a huge leap of creative imagination to think up, design and build whatever it is that will successfully contain the fusion reaction and allow us to draw energy from it. The reward of a Nobel prize for that Herculean task seems incommensurate. And while I’m at it, it seems a bit backward, once we’ve gotten there, linking a machine like that up to a steam generator, doesn’t it! Definitely wouldn’t befit the starship Enterprise, etc 🙂
                      [Though Scotsmen have been wringing the best from steam engines for centuries!]

                      I’m sure fusion would represent a huge dilemma for us, as you rightly bring up. Would be it fair for anyone one planet Earth, to not have anything they so desired? When energy is not a factor, there is literally nothing to stop us, aside from morals. And herein lies the rub.
                      I can’t find many modern institutions — those of mainstream culture and even mainstream learning, now — promoting morals and a Relative Absolutist stance. I find the opposite—an entrenched Absolute Relativism. Anything is OK as long as the individual deems it so. This sounds very free and forgiving; in my opinion it’s about as close to hell as it comes, and destroys any hope of appeals to objective decency and nils all moral currency with which we would purchase people’s temperance. What else could we use to condemn the acts of National Socialism, for instance? If the law of the land were “Jews must die” then that’s the law of the land [right because I say so, i.e., Absolute Relativism]. This is an example at the extremes, my volume turned up to ten. But it could be something as simple and contemporary as “I have the right to overeat if I want to, it’s not wrong if I say it isn’t.” Without a moral lingua franca [historically religion and its commandments, etc] we have no recourse to convince and dissuade people. You need a moral warrant to tell Hitler he is wrong. A moral warrant needs to stand on something. The religious view was to place this on the transcendental, an ex-human authority: God. I do the same, but hold holistic views and believe the universe to be self-reflexive, in a similar vein as Hegel, so it’s me and you and our collective Spirit which becomes the authority, at once outside and inside us all. But with these kind of beliefs comes the necessary idea of teleology—that we are progressing, at least moving, toward something. And so our our efforts should always be to an end, i.e., contain a moral/ethical target.
                      I see a lot of immoral activity. Knowledge acquisition for economic or political means: the sad fact that most American fusion is about understanding bombs better underlines it. I see children encouraged to denounce their innocence and behave as adults, pop stars singing about money, money, money. No one talking about peace, love and harmony. I could probably elicit laughter from most people by just saying the words out loud. But there it is. These things have always happened; but the difference is there used to be a weighty means to criticize with. We are now faced with a set of beliefs which prevents critique in any way –> I’m reminded here of how we just spoke the other day about “art because the artist says it is/the viewer says it is” and question, again, my/our grounds for validating that conclusion. Perhaps we are just helpless against the spirit of the age and are unknowingly propagating the idea, even when we might be trying to rile against it.

                      At any rate. Here’s what I think about most in connection with fusion. If we mastered this, and effectively rewarded ourselves with unlimited energy… well, that energy is of course at our disposal for moving matter or turning more of it into energy, etc… we all know about the heat death of the universe… but, wouldn’t man’s mastery of fusion actually give us the tools to prevent that heat death, at will. We wouldn’t need the stars for heat and light: our fusion reactors could do it all for us. More likely, what I was really thinking of, we could use our fusion reactors to make huge machines which could herd matter together and we could effectively start our own stars to replace ones that were going out… We could shift matter back together that is flying apart—lack of energy/power to do it wouldn’t be a problem.

                      I tried to write a SF story about this and failed miserably. But I might try again someday. Hopefully before they achieve fusion! 🙂

                    • I wonder whether fusion hasn’t already been achieved but is being kept very, very secret for precisely the reasons you mention.

                      On a very remotely related note: religion might shift the relativism to an absolute God, but the interpretation is still very much down to man: and we complete the circle.

                      Andre: you should really join us in Tokyo in November…

                    • Hmm, there might one or two laws of thermodynamics that might want to have a word with you and your perpetual motion machines, Tom. 😉

                    • Thanks for the invitation, Ming. It sounds like an interesting group, and I’ve never visited Japan. Perhaps something to look forward to in the future …

                    • But Andre, I’m not talking free lunches… it’s quite ok to put more energy in than we get out when there’s effectively no limit to the energy at hand. It’s reassigning the matter arrangement/distribution is all we’re interested in. But yes, it couldn’t ever work sustainably—-we’d run out of matter!
                      (though starting out with all the matter available in the universe, that might take a while)

                      Why it belongs in the realm of fiction!

              • It makes sense, but I think fish might suddenly become an unpopular diet, and people would no longer want to go to the beach…

                • Moral doesn’t have to make sence, it never did, it never will. Fear is partly irrational, it always was, it always will be. I believe nuclear plants are safe and kill less life then coal burning will (in the present, the past and the future). I’ve worked with P-32 inbuild in ATP and DNA in a liquid state, I know a thing or two about the dangers of nuclear radiation of course.

                  Having said that….I don’t mind that I don’t have to deal with that now. A lot of bogus is being spoken about the dangers of radiation…..if we control it, it is safe, until we can’t control it anymore. That is why storing waste in the deep ocean was and is dangerous. We simply have not enough knowledge what would happen if things get out of control. In Germany they decided to dismantle all nuclear energy and replace it with solar and wind. Now they noticed that even solar is not without it’s risks (fire hazard in solar panels and fire is much harder to reach for fireman when a solar clad roof burns). Wind can pose threads to migratory birds being hit by rotors. On the other hand an old depot of medium radioactive waste started leaking (or better threatened to do so) a few decades after geologists claimed the site to be stable for eons removing the waste (if possible) will cost a few billion euro.

                  I like the approach of James Lovelock……every energy has it’s potential risks (coal can kill miners by the cartload, can produce astma inducing sout, oil can cause toxic oil spils, and germanium used for building solar cells is no kitchenspice either).

                  We are all a bit like the soucerers apprentice and the broom. We think we know how to tame the beast, but in fact we have all have a limited notion of what we are doing and what riks we are taking while doing so. So we all flee in analogies. Airtravel is more dangerous then nuclear energy…..probably yes, but an airline captain shall think otherwise I guess. The dangers of airtravel are usually taken for granted by those who fly and not by those who don’t fly so the last can minimise their risk (unless of course they chose to travel by car instead, which is much more dangerous, and yet I drive to Spain for the summer). Risk is perceived and combination of control, versus abcense of control. Of trust versus distrust. Of old versus new. Of foreign versus domestic (Germans fear French nuclear power plants, we fear Belgian once and the French sleap quietly in sight of their Super Phoenix).

                  Still I like the idea of James (in the Vanishing face of Gaya), just burry some nuclear waste in my garden (shielded of course) but let me use the excess heat to power my house for the future to come. I have some hope that we will be able to understand the risks of fossil fuels before we have permanently altered the state of our planet beyond recognition. We might be, they (big oil) have to muich invested allready (about a factor 5 times to much) to care.

                  All in all, the future does not look to bleak, 11 billion mouthes to feed……if we’d all became Americans well we’d run out of resources soon enough never mind nuclear fusion (uranium 235 is a limited recourse as well), fission, solar, wind, fossil or what we’d use to power the world. We will have to start thinking about concerving resources by reducing all of our individual footprints. That is someting we can’t do on our own……we will have to ask (politely or by a straigth boycot) companies to sell us products that limit resource use. By demanding local food, by buying seasonal, by buying untreated food (you can buy vegetables unprocessed) or even by growing your own. By conserving energy and turning houses into energy plants. By not buying a new cellphone or smartphone when a new one arrives, by upgrading our products (hello Olympus an EM-5 software upgrade would be nice, I’dd like some extended bracketing possibilities that can be programmed in a day).

                  All of this can be done, examples exist today, all in all we have to make a transition. The profit has to be Rob Hopkins. He wrote the book on a living a resource independent lifestyle……that can be fun.

                  Greets, Ed.

  24. Ming, we have the 2005 edition of this book (which may con taint different images as the 2012 edition) – some great work indeed. Concerning the tilts (I have noticed them too) – these might have been done in post processing (digital or analog by tilting the plane of the negative relative to the paper) – unless of course a different type of camera was used (as suggested above).

  25. Erling M Moe says:

    The book is great. This summer, there was an exhibition of his works in Horten Norway (an hour outside Oslo), at Preus Photographic Museum. The exhibition was curated by Fotografiska Stockholm and showed at least 50 of these images in LARGE format. I agree with all of you comments, but of course this large exhibition prints had an even greater impact.
    I was particularly fascinated, technically and artistically, by a picture of a lion (p. 125 in the book) (also here: It look “impossible”, the face of the lion in focus (in the wind), the grass in front to the left sharp, the grass to the right behind sharp. SInce the photographer insists he does not alter the images digitally, it must be some form of tilt-shift as you say. I have seen articles on the web saying he (also) used Hasselblads, but nothing official.
    A list of his current exhibitions can be found here:

    • Hasselblad has the Arc and Flex Bodies, both of which offer tilt/shift functions. I’m looking at picking up a Flex myself, actually. That might go some way towards explaining the look.

      I can only imagine how fantastic these look in larger prints – I can’t make images like his, but I definitely appreciate the increased impact of a larger format…

      • Howard Stevens says:

        This photo is amazing – I have no idea what tilt/shift can do or how it works but it looks like the plane of focus is ~ 35 degree angle from the front left grass to the rear right grass….incredible, then the filters combination/processing…
        I would love to know how he took these images and how fast he can run with medium format + tripod etc 🙂

    • Erling, many many thanks for the link to the exhibition list !! Seems like the exhibition is coming to my country in December/January.
      I didn’t read anything of it in local magazines, so thanks to your post I will not miss this amazing photographer!!
      I have the book, and I agree with you, the picture of the lion is my favorite, it intrigues me, not only the technical side, but the whole picture, the way the lion looks…. amazing
      So thanks again for posting the exhibition list, otherwise I would have certainly missed it !!!

      Many thanks,

  26. As you suggest, and magnificent as the book is, it is really impossible to convey the experience of seeing these prints at an exhibition. If anyone ever has the chance, I can’t recommend it enough – be prepared to spend a few days for it though, one will feel the urge to return. Not only to the exhibition but to Africa as well, regardless of whether one has actually been there; such is the strange power of these images. Fortunately, Brandt displays his prints quite frequently, check out exhibitions on his web page.
    Nice to hear your thoughts on Brandt’s photography – thanks for the review.

    • Hopefully they’ll overlap in one of other cities I happen to visit…KL is a bit of an artistic desert. Actually, it’s completely an artistic desert.

  27. Years ago, probably before I was really serious about photography, I ran across On This Earth at one of the big chain book stores. I was drawn to it, but for some unknown reason I never made the purchase. Well thanks to you Ming I’ve got a second chance at it. Ordered it off your link. Can’t wait to get my hands on it. Thanks for bringing it to the readers attention!

  28. Reblogged this on Gabbie cbg.

  29. It would be great to have you visit Africa sometime soon Ming…I have often wondered how you would interpret this Continent through your lens. If you decide to visit, consider Zambia where I am found. It’s a beautiful country for its stunning landscapes, abundant wildlife and friendly people.

  30. Ming, if you missed this article, take a look. He uses infrared filters but is coy about the trchnique used to capture depth of field.

    Click to access Professional_Photographer_Jul_06(1).pdf

  31. I’m sold! Did you have to Amazon it or is it possible to pick up a copy in KL?

  32. Nick Brandt is in a class by himself, and to me, he represents much of what photography is all about; patience, practice, repetition, more patience, exquisite technique, waiting for the moment and when the moment is there, capture it. He makes me want to dump digital all together, pack my large Fujis and go on a journey, back to loved places, discover them and capture those precious moments. To start with, I will buy his book 🙂

  33. Glad you found this one. Bought it eight months ago. And while the images you reproduce are amazing as is on the web, for those who have not seen the actual book, you’ve got to see what these images look like “in person” to believe how incredible they are.

    Thanks for highlighting this book. Brandt deserves to sell lots of copies.


  1. […] for photobook printing for me. You can find extended reviews of the first and second volumes here and here. For the curious, there is also a very interesting interview of Nick Brandt by Ming Thein […]

  2. […] my review of his first book, I received a very complimentary email from Nick thanking me for my review and expressing something […]

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] one of Nick Brandt’s books ($49-90; Amazon) – See my review of his first book here. Gorgeous images of strong subjects presented in an impeccable manner; anybody who loves […]

  5. […] This article is going to be much less of a review than a gushing of praise; if you have a single photographic bone i…  […]

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