Photographer captures nature journey

Erin Ghere

After being arrested in Russia, attacked by rhinos in Africa and braving the North Pole, he finally found peace in his own backyard.
Photographer Jim Brandenburg spent 90 days during 1994 near his northern Minnesota home, taking one photo per day to create his most recent book, “Chased by the Light.” His photography will be featured at the Bell Museum of Natural History’s west gallery beginning Saturday and will remain through May 16.
Brandenburg, a freelance National Geographic photographer and lifelong Minnesotan, began his journey after becoming frustrated with the pressures that accompanied his normal photography. Brandenburg sought recluse from deadlines, style guidelines and quality expectations.
“I wanted a new approach to work,” he said. He wanted to get back to the roots of his trade by creating something that was frugal, simple and personal, he said.
The project was a spiritual quest, beginning on the autumnal equinox and ending on the winter solstice. He chose those dates because they are based on nature’s calendar rather than people.
“I wanted to do something in the spirit of art,” he said. “When artists are in their studio and it comes straight from their soul, it is the truest form.”
Much of the personal foundation for the project came from Brandenburg’s study and interest in Zen and eastern philosophy.
He said it was in his “church” — the woods near his cabin in Ely, Minn. — when he had a sort of epiphany.
“It is impossible to explain,” he said of the experience. “I wanted to represent something I felt that day, not calendar photos.”
The shots were not always easy to take, mechanically or emotionally.
Brandenburg described Oct. 2 as the best day of his journey — a day when he set out from his cabin before the sunrise.
“I was canoeing and I saw two loons ahead of me,” he said. “One was tangled in fishing line and had a hook in its neck. I saw the dying loon, the beautiful light, the island and it just summed up the ecosystem around me.”
He caught the loon and untangled it from the fishing line and hook, snapping one photograph as it flew away.
“It flapped its wings as if to say, ‘thank you,'” he said. “I saved the bird’s life, I guess.”
It was a difficult photo to take, he said, and turned out better than he thought. It is rare to get a loon with wings outstretched, he said.
His most difficult day came on Oct. 29, he said, when he walked the entire day without finding a photograph he felt was right to take.
“I vowed I would not shoot the expected,” he said, meaning sunsets, flowers and other “romantic depictions of nature.”
But at the end of the day, he came upon a small lake bordered by the sky, with typical sunset colors — just the kind of trite nature scene he vowed not to take.
He took the photo anyway.
As he walked away, tears ran down his cheeks.
“I felt so depleted,” he said. “I thought maybe I should give up on this project because it wasn’t working out how I wanted it to.”
He went back to his cabin and fell asleep, but awoke at 2 a.m. to the sight of the northern lights in the sky.
“I got up and two hours later I had a photograph,” he said. “I’d have to say that it’s one of the most popular pictures in the book.
“So back-to-back I had my worst and one of my best.”
Unlike his normal practice of shooting 400 to 500 rolls of film per assignment, Brandenburg said shooting only one photo per day was an additional challenge.
“You look at the world differently,” he said. Knowing which picture to take was a gut feeling rather than a logical choice. “It was an intuitive, feeling experience.”
Brandenburg compared his work to the experience of the earliest known communicators: cave painters.
“I was doing the same thing, but I had the luxury of only being chased by the light, rather than animals and other things they faced,” he said.
When his journey ended, he developed the film but did not initially show the proofs to anyone.
As it happened, the photos were finally published in National Geographic in November 1997, after sitting in a drawer at Brandenburg’s studio for more than two years.
“They had approached me about doing a wolf project and I had done several before,” he said.
Uninterested, he showed them his northern Minnesota project. He received a call within a day that the magazine wanted to publish his work.
“That was the biggest surprise of my professional career,” he said, as he had never expected to publish them.
The magazine printed the project in its entirety, making Brandenburg’s collection the largest ever published in National Geographic history.
“Chased by the Light” was later published in book form, in October 1997, and has sold more than 100,000 copies to date, making it Brandenburg’s best-selling book.
“His photography focuses on nature, which fits with our mission,” said Nina Shepherd, spokeswoman for the Bell Museum. “It’s a perfect match.”
He has worked with the Bell Museum on several occasions. In addition, an earlier work of Brandenburg’s is being showcased by the museum as a traveling exhibit.
“I am honored to be working with the Bell Museum,” he said. “It meant a lot to me when I was younger.” Brandenburg is still a member.
He has had his work featured in several magazines, including Life and the Smithsonian, and has authored two best-selling books, “Brother Wolf” and “White Wolf,” along with several children’s books.
He has also been awarded the Kodak Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, as well as twice been named the Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association.