Nick Brandt: This Empty World @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against cream colored walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side gallery. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2018. Physical sizes range from roughly 35×30 to 56×121 inches, and the prints are variously available in editions of 6, 9, or 15. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Thames & Hudson (here). Hardcover, 120 pages, with 70 color images. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: If we look back across the last twenty years of artistic output from the British photographer Nick Brandt, the arc of disillusionment that has consistently infused his work is pretty hard to miss.

His first and most enduringly popular images from East Africa represent the reaction that most of us would expect to have when first seeing elephants and lions in the wild. His black and white pictures capture these animals in all their grandeur and majesty, and the giraffes, cheetahs, zebras, and other species from the grasslands are seen with a similar sense of heightened drama. Brandt’s images are filled with power and grace, and are framed with an appropriate (and sometimes heavy handed) dose of human awe and respect.

But in the subsequent years (which eventually extended to a trilogy of projects taking up more than a decade), Brandt’s mood darkened noticeably. The natural optimism that provided the foundation of the first set of photographs slowly erodes away, and while he still makes a few towering images of elephants and roaring big cats during this period, his mix of imagery starts to change. Severed tusks, exhausted animals, petrified birds, trophy heads, and parched dry landscapes become much more prevalent, the persistent challenges of poaching and environmental degradation starting to color his view of what outsiders needed to understand about what was happening in the game preserves.

Brandt’s transformation from glossy animal portraitist to increasingly angry visual activist made itself clear in his Inherit the Dust body of work from a few years ago, where he staged large portrait posters of glorious animals in actual nearby wastelands. These images were unsettlingly incongruous, with the elephants, rhinos, and lions seemingly wandering among garbage heaps, factories, dusty stone quarries, construction sites, and highway overpasses. And while the ugly contrasts and harsh realities certainly got his point across, the pictures felt a bit forced and mannered – it was clear that these weren’t the real animals, so the aesthetic gesture seemed stagey and exaggerated.

Brandt’s recent series This Empty World both remedies that initial failing and then amplifies the results several more notches. Instead of bringing the animals to the outside world (via the posters), he has done the reverse, essentially bringing the outside world to the animals. Shooting on Masai land, he first made images of the animals from fixed spots in their natural habitat. Then several weeks later, he returned to the exact same locations (when the animals had long since moved off), and with the help of the local community, temporarily staged scenes that resemble the encroachments of the outside world: bus stops, construction projects, petrol stations, and other grubbily functional human intrusions. He then returned to his studio and digitally merged the two exposures, creating the illusion of the wild animals set amidst the grim modern reality.

That Brandt’s results are apocalyptic is perhaps an understatement, at least from the perspective of the animals. Shooting for the first time in color and at night, his pictures seethe like a scifi hellscape imagined by Ridley Scott. Wild animals are hemmed in by the human activity, and the proximity creates some astonishing pairings – a rhino forced to coexist with a fluorescent-lit auto garage crowded with piles of tires, a group of elephants wandering through a bridge construction site, a lion skittering by a truck-filled petrol station, and a giraffe trapped by a charcoal burning operation.

That these dramatic visual constructions look almost plausibly real is the kicker – when the actual elephant is bathed in red neon light by the crowded long distance bus, Brandt absolutely gets us for a moment; this disorienting paradise lost just might be possible. When he tries to get more poetic, with forests of scraggly thorn trees and a river of people all looking at their phones (thereby missing the bulky elephant in their midst), the spell is broken too much for us to suspend our disbelief. But when we turn back to find the hyenas scurrying through the foggy construction site or the elephants breaking through the orange netting laid by the highway workers, the magic returns and the desperate coexistence Brandt is foretelling becomes that much more surreally uncomfortable.

Seen from the vantage point of the animals, these scenes play like hostile invasions. The best of them make the human presence feel callously indifferent, our needs (from our perspective) so dominant over those of the animals that we hardly even notice that we have destroyed their lives with our busyness. While Brandt’s constructions are exaggerated and visually heightened, a handful find a sense of insistence that gets beyond the obvious staginess to drive the knife in with force. If I am honest, I wasn’t ready to give Brandt the benefit of the doubt before I saw the pictures in person, as I assumed his illusions would fall flat; but having seen them, a few capture the interplay between the fragility of the great animals and the agonizing futility and arrogance of human endeavor with a sense of tension that I found memorably compelling.

In many ways, Brandt’s ominously prophetic setups aren’t easy to like – he’s shown us a vision of the near future (or even right now) that is so extreme and disheartening that it’s hard not to want to look away and pretend that what he’s envisioning is ridiculous fatalistic fiction. He’s chosen to provocatively hold up a mirror to our misguided ways, creatively extending what we are passively doing now to its bleakly logical endpoint. It’s an approach to addressing the complexity of environmental change that tries to blast us out of our inattentive slumber, and some will discount it as too much. While not every image here moved me (and a few miss the mark more fully), those visual punches that do land do so with harrowing ruthlessness. They made me want to slink away in guilty embarrassment over what we have wrought, or better yet, muscle up and do something to prevent the dark world Brandt has shown us.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $40000, based on size. Brandt’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $90000.

Nick Brandt, Edwynn Houk Gallery, Thames & Hudson

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