Nick Brandt’s photography uses the lens as a magnifier of the textures and tonality of the African wilderness, finding within its breadth and depth a sculptural, rather than pictorial, sense of beauty. The images Brandt captures do not concern themselves with the investigation (and subsequent possession) of their subjects as a whole; rather, they are an exploration of isolated shapes and surfaces that are otherworldly and thus scarcely capable of possession. One can understand what a zebra or elephant is, how it behaves, and what it looks like, but one would be hard-pressed to find themselves in the dream from which Brandt’s zebras have seemingly stepped. While their lives are entirely alien to us, their placement within such surreal context gives them a startling familiarity, as though we had once envisioned such beasts in legend or trance. In this way the work serves as a literal “image-world”, a playground for forms that, while already known and perhaps cherished, have become imbued with peculiar magic by the photographic process; we are part of these beings (we have known them) and yet incalculably separate from them (as we were never present in this space and time).
This dichotomy is what I believe is Brandt’s main concern in photography. While these moments in Africa have in fact occurred, and have thus etched themselves to film, it appears unlikely-—in fact virtually inconceivable—-for us to ever again achieve the same experience in a world outside of the artist’s frames. It is this impossibility which leads to the images’ power, for they represent an unattainable world somehow informed by and cross-woven with our own.
Yet, most importantly, for these images to be part of our reality (that is, to be seen at all), we must also acknowledge that these places, these beings, also exist now within our internal universe. Susan Sontag writes that our understanding of the world is affected not by our experience of it, but by our images of it: we are more aware of what has been captured than what has been merely seen. These photographs, then, serve as both an extension of our awareness and a reminder that that awareness will be forever limited to a single shot, to a few focused seconds of sunlight on silver.
Absolutely phenomenal work. I urge you to explore it.
Much has been made of our universe’s seeming repetition of form, of nature’s unerring patterns splayed out in galaxies and electron orbits; wherever we look, we find clues written in the same language. Infinite and infintesimal seem not such polar opposites when one encounters the glow of nebulae within a cell, the roots of trees echoed in your iris. What does it mean, that these designs scale so endlessly?
On a warm summer night in upstate New York, the crackling lights of fireflies floated like lanterns in the darkness; I remember being astonished by the amount of activity they generated, the constancy of their flashing, their sheer ludicrous numbers. Several were flickering overhead, but as they began to flash and group in more geometric patterns I realized that they weren’t fireflies at all– they were a plane.
Without a sense of scale, fireflies and airplanes become the same symbol, the same candles in an unending night: are we really so different from them? Are our lights, or theirs, anything more than signals thrown against the unknowable?