February 7 – March 7, 2019
Immediately upon entering Waddington Custot gallery, photographer Nick Brandt's series "This Empty World" dazzles with its imposing scale, colorful detail, and technical ambition. These cinematic panoramas, taken on Maasai land in Kenya, depict humanity's swelling ranks as encroaching on nature's domain. Often oppressively lit in garish neon light, mankind's omnipresence is evident through partially-constructed sets imitating urban infrastructure, and the dispersion of human actors throughout the scenes. The majesty of the region's wildlife is palpably diminished here, making it appear alienated within the radically altered landscape.
Brandt's photographic and activist concerns have always focused on the detrimental impact of human activity on the Earth's ecology—specifically, the violence wrought on the biodiversity of East Africa. "This Empty World" is a thematic and technical progression from his previous series "On This Earth" (2001–2004), "A Shadow Falls" (2005–2008), "Across the Ravaged Land" (2010–2012), and "Inherit the Dust" (2014–2016). The first two series utilized the conventions of studio portraiture to photograph lions, cheetahs, and chimpanzees "for posterity," producing captivating black-and-white images that implied animals' inherent kinship with humans, and their tragic extinction by us too. Six years later and Brandt's elegy became an anguished lament. Instead of a melancholy celebration of East Africa's wilderness, his work assumed a darker tone. In "Across the Ravaged Land," he repeatedly foregrounds mankind's callousness, photographing rangers holding severed elephant tusks, and mounted animal heads—"trophies"—staring lifelessly out over the Chyulu Hills of South East Kenya. (It is not by chance that, in the same year he started "Across the Ravaged Land," he also co-founded the Big Life Foundation to promote the conservation of the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem).
With "Inherit the Dust," photos of animals from earlier series were enlarged to life-size proportions and re-photographed among locations radically altered by urban development; resulting in pictures of rhinos, lions and elephants overlooking despoiled surroundings as if mourning a more idyllic past. "This Empty World" reformulates these elements, prompted perhaps by Africa's predicted increase in population by 600 million come 2030. An ambitious undertaking, the project required six months to complete, and necessitated the building of large sets and night shoots amid relentless dust-storms. Initially, partial sets were constructed on Maasai land—one of the few places where animals and humans still coexist—and motion-activated cameras hidden from view. After many weeks, the animals became comfortable enough to enter these strange domains, triggering the camera as they did so. The next-step involved completing the set—a petrol station for example or a highway—and enlisting a cast of local residents to populate each scene, before taking the second image, almost always from the same position as the first. The final photograph is a composite of both images; producing scenes in which large mammals appear lost within a human-dominated milieu.
Where Brandt has diverged from his usual methodology is in conceding the need for color and digital photography—two forms previously unfamiliar to him. The seventeen photographs presented here (of the series' forty-five) come alive on the wide cream walls of the gallery, his tableaus full of crisp detail and bright, expressionistic lighting. They are also epically scaled. River of People with Elephants (2018), the show's largest image, is an impressive 136 inches across by 52 inches high, commanding a wall of its own at the end of the central room. Dark clouds stretch atop the photograph, while the human "river" of the title winds from the centre foreground into the distance. The actors' demeanour here is one of helpless resignation—heads bowed and eyes down—appearing indifferent to the elephant on their left, holding its body defensively over its young as if to protect it (and subsequent generations) from humankind.
As a consequence of the series' epic and beguiling visual qualities, aesthetics sometimes obscure the visceral urgency of Brandt's environmental message. Roundabout with Gazelle (2018), for example, bears likeness to contemporary fashion advertising. Staged across the image's center, purple, gold, and green neon lights glow in the background, while in the center foreground a gazelle faces us, symmetrically positioned on a single, circular patch of grass. The photograph's composition and colors are balanced, its signifiers evoking the quiet hum of nightlife, so that a sense of threat is subdued. The visual grandeur of Brandt's vision, bordering on the allegorical, can overshadow its more nuanced content, such as humanity's complicated relationship with the environment. However, the lack of antagonism between the represented human and animal cast makes it clear that ordinary individuals aren't considered to blame for this environmental degradation. Rather his work gestures towards the more powerful, insidious forces of government and industry.
Despite the fact that the series reads more as fine art than as a gut-wrenching call-to-arms, "This Empty World" is still an ambitious, technically assured, and arresting body of work. Brandt's engineered images of nature displaced by human development suggest that our unimpeded colonization of the planet threatens to unbalance a delicate ecosystem. If (or when) this happens, the consequence will be not only the decimation of numerous animal and plant species, but the radical transformation of human life, too.