General 6-18-2003

Nature Photography Transformed: Jim Brandenburg

J. Z. Grover wrote this fascinating piece on Jim Brandenburg's groundbreaking project, “Chased by the Light.” Brandenburg's sequel--"Looking for Summer"--will be published this fall. Grover speaks to the effect of market and genre on artists' work.

Jim Brandenburg’s “Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Journal” pushed the boundaries of nature photography: he shot one and only one image a day for 90 days between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Brandenburg will be publishing another, related project this September: “Looking for Summer, ” a similar series of one-a-day photos between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox . It premieres in National Geographic‘s current issue.

Work long enough at any trade, and you begin to invent challenges for yourself that are invisible to others: turning out a certain number of objects or sales within an hour or day; working with uncommonly obdurate materials; choosing the most difficult students; writing essays of 700 or fewer words.

Jim Brandenburg, the well-known nature photographer who lives near Ely, apparently reached that point a year or so ago: “I wanted to see if I could find what had drawn me so long ago to my art and to see if I had become as perceptive of nature as I had hoped,” he wrote. He felt that his photography had become “stuck in . . . [a] pattern,” and he wanted to find a way out of that—something that could return him to the joy of roaming the woods, “follow[ing] animal tracks in the snow as I had done so happily as a boy.”

So Brandenburg imposed an “arbitrary and rigid” set of limits on his photography: he would make only a single exposure each day between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice—“not the best selected from rolls and rolls of similar frames,” but one image per day, “a true original, like a painting.”

While this may not sound like a particularly radical refusal to most of us, whose cameras commonly contain film that spans the seasons between Easter or Passover and Christmas or Hannukah, this constituted a surrender to the equivalent of snapshot primevalism for a professional photographer like Brandenburg. In the heyday of Life and Look magazines, the shooting ratio for photojournalists was anywhere between 10:1 and 30: 1; today, the National Geographic and other magazines for whom Brandenburg works budget shooting ratios of 10:1, meaning that the magazine pays for the cost of film and development at the rate of 10 times the number of photographs actually used: 10 for every 1.

For Brandenburg to confine himself voluntarily to a 1:1 shot-to-print ratio, then, was like a machinist challenging himself to produce a 100 percent success rate with machined parts, or a writer to create a manuscript that would need not a single revision.

As you can imagine, such a high-wire act is not entirely successful: from this writer’s point of view, a number of the 90 images Brandenburg made seem pretty perfunctory. One, however, is astonishing: the extreme close-up of a dead (poached) doe’s eye (“Day 57”) with a curve uncannily like our own, spikily lashed, clearly dead, and filmed over to the texture of wet leather.

Part of the difficulty may lie in Brandenburg’s positioning northeastern Minnesota as a “wild and isolated place,” and Ely as a “small, end-of-the-road town.” When a series of photographs and Chased by Light, the book they spawned, become framed by such romantic notions, it follows that we can expect images stressing the wild, and only the wild. From Brandenburg’s photographs, you’d never know that there were portage trails, foot trails, canoes, and canoeists in these woods. For example, “Day 12” is a view looking northeast along Lake Superior, Shovel Point aglow with evening light. The wide-angle shot makes the point seem so far away that its considerable human alterations—climbing points, stairways, the infamous collection of refrigerators and motorcycles at its base—are invisible. This is superficially true of the rest of the images: these woods look untouched by our kind. Yet much of what seems untouched in Brandenburg’s photographs is human-made: the heavy forest cover of popple (“Day 17”); the deer, who were not native to these latitudes before the forests were clear-cut; ox-eye daisies (“Day 34”) and the tracks of a red fox (“Day 69”), two European introductions to the north woods. The reverse is also true: Burntside Lake and White Iron lakes, both heavily developed along their shorelines, look like the back of beyond in these photographs.

This is not exactly a complaint—more a caution: Brandenburg has fashioned a “pristine” (that dirty eight-letter word) Minnesota wilderness that many of us who hike and canoe it won’t immediately recognize. He offers viewers beautiful natural forms and rare observations—almost as many on-the-ground wolf sightings in 90 days as David Mech has had in over 30 years!—that may leave them feeling they have learned something about the north woods in late fall and early winter. And for deer and grouse hunters, many of the sights in the first 45 days of this suite will be semifamiliar and deeply savorable. But with the exception of the poached deer and two other images of dead deer, these 90 photographs present a strifeless and curiously humanless picture of the BWCWA. Like Ansel Adams, Brandenburg apparently chose to work around the signs that we humans leave on the land. And so for all the beauty of his photographs, they strike me as oddly evasive, merely pretty, and not challenging in the way that wildlife art can be.

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