Nick Brandt uses his moody portraits of elephants, giraffes, and lions to call attention to Africa’s vanishing megafauna. His latest series, Inherit the Dust, imagines these beautiful creatures wandering landscapes they’ve long since been driven out of.
The series, compiled in a photo book of the same name, features life-size portraits of the animals looming in sweeping panoramas of garbage dumps, highway underpasses, railways and construction sites in Kenya. The jarring and powerful imagery is part of Brandt’s lifelong dedication to highlighting the plight of Africa’s increasingly threatened wildlife.
Brandt, who’s spent 15 years working in Africa, is as much an activist as he is a photographer. Five years ago he co-founded Big Life Foundation, a nonprofit that safeguards two million acres of land from poachers by hiring rangers from nearby communities. Inherit the Dust was inspired by the changes he saw sweeping across the landscape, like illegal logging predicted to eliminate some 30 million acres by 2030. “I just couldn’t get over how fast the natural world in Africa was being wiped out,” he says. “I tend to be quite pessimistic, but this was worse than even I had imagined. I kept thinking about all these places where these animals had once roamed but no longer did.”
Brandt spent about two years on the project, which started with him sifting through a decade of previously unpublished photos. He selected 20 or so, blew them up to life size, and then shipped them from his home in California to Kenya, where he had them mounted on immense wood panels with aluminum frames. Brandt spent 7 months scouting locations, then had a crew of more than 20 people erect the photos. Despite specifically visiting Kenya during the rainy season, the photographer often found himself waiting for days at a time to get the melancholy clouds he was looking for. And though he planned on staging people within each shot, he soon discovered it far more effective to let people interact with the portraits naturally. It led to unexpected, often surprising, images, such as the little boy gently touching the immense photo of an elephant in Underpass with Elephants.
The project wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t cheap, but the idea of digitally inserting the animals into the photos never crossed his mind. “The panels had to be there, with the animals life-size, in each location. Everything looks better, more genuinely organically integrated. But also what happens unexpectedly in real life is almost always better than what you might come up with in Photoshop,” he says.
Brandt worked on black and white film with a Mamiya RZ67. The final images are comprised of 6 to 10 negatives digitally blended to form an ultra-wide view. The photos—a chimpanzee sitting quietly by a festering stream, a giraffe gazing over a construction site—are as beautiful as they are melancholy. For Brandt, he hopes people looking at his photos will gain “a sense of the glory of what once was but is fast being annihilated by man.”
Inherit the Dust will be on show at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles from March 24.