Bell Museum exhibit showcases prairie photos

by Amber Schadewald

The gallery in the Bell Museum of Natural History is filled with blooming wildflowers and tall, leafy grasses, each frozen in time.

Their rich natural greens, browns, yellows and deep violets protrude from the photographs that hang on the walls, along with bison herds, deer and grasshoppers paired with a backdrop of sunsets and rolling fields.

These images are part of a new exhibit at the Bell Museum of Natural History titled “Touch the Sky: Prairie Photographs,” which opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 31. The exhibit is intended to give the viewer a chance to step back 200 years, when Minnesota’s prairie was in full bloom.

For artist Jim Brandenburg, this is his way of allowing people to see and understand the importance of a place they might never have been exposed to.

Don Luce, curator of exhibits at the Bell Museum, said Brandenburg’s work is a way to get people to appreciate the aesthetic beauty and natural history of the prairie.

The Bell Museum traditionally combines art, science and nature in its exhibits, and Luce said Brandenburg’s photography does just that.

Brandenburg grew up in southwestern Minnesota in the town of Luverne, in a little house on the prairie.

He began photographing the landscape around him when he was in high school. He appreciated the unique assortment of plants, animals and insects he found there.

Brandenburg’s backyard became the source for an array of subjects for his photography and his prairie photos ended up being the start to his career at nature magazine National Geographic more than 20 years ago.

The “Touch the Sky” exhibit features some of the photos he took for the magazine, picturing natural prairie landscape and wildlife from around the Midwest.

One of his favorite photos, he said, titled “Touch the Sky,” was taken more recently, when he was commissioned for a Japanese public television station.

The photo features a field of purple flowers and bright green grasses in Luverne. The focus of the photo is not what is on the ground, but the cloud that takes over the sky above.

The cloud’s shape resembles what some have said is a dove or an eagle, wings outstretched, flying high above the prairie land.

Brandenburg’s father had died the day before, and many have suggested some type of correlation between the death and the cloud, but Brandenburg disagreed.

“It was just a coincidence to see that vision,” Brandenburg said. “I just happened to see it. That’s what I do for a living; I see things.”

Brandenburg said he wants people to understand how precious the land really is.

But Brandenburg’s photo opportunities may be shrinking. With less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s native prairie remaining, finding places to shoot isn’t easy.

To counteract that, in 1999 Brandenburg and his wife, Judy, founded the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation to promote, preserve and expand the native prairie in southwestern Minnesota.

So far they have purchased more than 800 acres of land in Rock County and turned it into a national wildlife refuge, he said.

“There is so little (prairie) left,” Brandenburg said. “There are still places worth saving.”

Restoring the prairie land is a difficult task, said ecology professor Ed Cushing.

He said that in one acre of prairie, there are up to 350 species of plants and it will take a lot of time and effort to revive it.

“You can’t just scatter the seeds about,” Cushing said. “The seeds can’t get from one place to another. They need help.”

The actual prairie plants paired with Brandenburg’s photos really help set the mood for an experience usually unobtainable in the city.

Brandenburg said the photos should make viewers feel like they are 200 years back, viewing a time when the rolling fields flourished and the bison and elk roamed free.

“Walk into one of these pictures and you will be overcome with a beautiful feeling,” Brandenburg said.