Luke McGuff (holyoutlaw) wrote,
Luke McGuff

On this Earth: Photographs from East Africa
Nick Brandt
Chronicle Books

These are some of the most beautiful and intimate photos -- portraits, even -- of East African wildlife you've ever seen. Alice Sebold, in the foreword, compares the portraits of chimpanzees to Civil War general portraits. And these pictures do have the feel of images from that long ago. They're sepia toned, have borders; the depth of field is shallow, or shifted as happened with older cameras. There are even occasional chemical splashes on a print, as if the negative were damaged during processing.

This all adds to the emotional impact of the images. The old fashioned feel and larger format bring the animals closer. Nick Brandt says he doesn't work with a telephoto lens, that he gets as close to the animals as possible, whether in a Land Rover or on the ground. And sometimes he just has to wait.

There is also a fair amount of debate about how much processing he does in Photoshop. The negatives are developed in a lab, scanned at high resolution. Then he adjusts curves and contrasts in Photoshop. He insists that he only does digitally what can be done in a chemical darkroom. (To me this is like saying you're a good driver because you only drive your Lexus as you would a Model A.) In fact, the woman behind me in line when I bought the book questioned how much "post" (as she put it) was done. "You can't tell me the baby hippos were all arranged like that," she said.

I have no problem with that picture, it's stunning. The eye goes up from the hippos bathing in the river, to the trees, to the clouds, and into infinity. What ever Photoshopping was done, was done to increase the emotional and aesthetic impact of the image.

In fact, after looking through the book, I searched on Nick Brandt to find interviews, reviews, and whatever I could about him. The question of how much he post-produces the images in Photoshop is inevitable; the constant defense that he does little or none begins to feel disingenuous the fourth or fifth time you've read it.

For my own part, I don't care. I think these photographs are beautiful. They have a sumptuousness and a depth, a calm and elegance, I've rarely seen in photography.

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