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Column: Walking with famed photographer Jim Brandenburg

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columns Worthington, 56187
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Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- We get asked about favorites. 

"What is your favorite ... color, team, vegetable?"

I almost never am able to answer these questions. I never know my favorites.

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I love fruits. Someone will ask, "What is your favorite fruit?" I don't know.

I believe bananas are a wonder and apples are a marvel. Strawberries are a treasure and peaches are ever a sensation. I don't want to imagine a world without pineapple and I reflect now and then on the fact that my grandparents in Nobles County never knew pineapple until -- I don't know -- somewhere into the 20th century. Pineapple was not always available in our far reaches. Nor were mangos.

So it is, because of a long association with the Daily Globe, I get asked now and again, "Who was your favorite photographer?" Often there is an assumption: "I suppose Jim Brandenburg is your favorite photographer." Not true. We are back to apples and pineapples.

Lately, with Brandenburg having been recognized for making four of the 40 greatest wildlife photos from all the world through all the history of photography, there has been a new spate of Brandenburg questions.

It must be understood that the Daily Globe has had a succession of illustrious photographers from 1940 to Brian Korthals. Well, but, people say, Brandenburg did all that work for National Geographic. So did Annie Griffiths Belt. Annie still is working with National Geographic.

Brandenburg has won awesome recognition, people say.

Yes. But only a short time after leaving the Daily Globe, Alf Ohlsen was part of a Fargo Forum team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1958 tornado coverage, including a pioneering Alf Ohlsen tornado photo which was published by the Forum.

On and on to this day. But -- no question -- Jim Brandenburg is the most famous on that glowing list. Brandenburg is the only one known everywhere by his last name.

What was it like working with Brandenburg, I am asked.

Jim and I were developing a story on Laura Ingalls Wilder's Plum Creek. There was a close focus on Laura Wilder at that time. Wholly by chance, my Plum Creek story and the Brandenburg photos were (about) the last thing my dad read before he died. Brandenburg made and gave to me a large print from the photos he made at Plum Creek that day as a memorial. Of course I still have that treasure. 

Walking with Brandenburg was (is still, I am sure) awkward. Brandenburg walks slowly, usually lagging behind whoever he is with. Why? He is ever assessing how this thing and another thing might be a photo.

We (Daily Globe people) were heard to joke, especially on a winter Friday, "I am going to take a Brandenburg this weekend." That brought responses in the vein of, "Ya. Right." What we were suggesting was that we might go out to a cold, desolate site and sit half-hidden by a snowbank for three hours or four hours waiting for some creature to make an appearance doing something most people seldom observe. Brandenburg should be a synonym for patience, even patience beyond belief.

In those years when Brandenburg was at Worthington -- a house along Lake Ocheda, actually -- most of us and most people everywhere would take a shot with our camera of something we found interesting. If the photo seemed important, we would take two shots.

Very often I watched Brandenburg at work after he had returned from an assignment. We ceased to be awed by the fact that he might have 200 shots, maybe 300 shots. This is part of getting a great photo.

It's curious. There may be come to be disappointments attending high honors.

The U.S. Postal Service chose four Brandenburg photos for a special issue on wildlife (1981). Of course there was great excitement when we got the news at the Daily Globe.

The stamps are a singular distinction for Brandenburg, of course. USPS blundered on this one. The stamps were printed in a single, light brown color. The photos were exceptional for their high quality. The stamps were exceptional for low quality. The images were barely distinct. Everyone was disappointed.

One thing we always appreciated: Jim Brandenburg was (remains) a notably exceptional person. 

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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