Four out of 40: Brandenburg's work included in top nature images of all time
ELY -- Jim Brandenburg was in Europe when his daughter, Heidi, e-mailed the news that four of his images had been chosen among the Top 40 Nature Photographs of all time.
"I told her, 'Heidi, I think there's been a mistake here. You'd better call them and make sure they didn't make a mistake -- but don't talk them out of it,'" he related during a phone interview last week.
It was no mistake. Jim -- a Luverne native and former Daily Globe and National Geographic photographer -- had more images chosen to represent the crème de la crème of nature photography than any other photographer.
The selection was made by the International League of Conservation Photographers and announced in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Although he is a member of this elite organization, Jim is not active and did not participate in the endeavor.
"I didn't even know they were voting," he admitted with a chuckle.
"I just stick my nose to the ground and do my work. I'm the one of the group that doesn't respond to e-mails or go to the 'parties,'" he added, referencing the organization's gatherings and events. "That's probably why they voted for me. I've never gotten into trouble with any of them."
But Jim admits to being overwhelmed by having his photographs included in a collection that includes the first shot of Earth taken by a human in space (1968 from Apollo 8) and two landscapes by Ansel Adams, as well as other iconic nature images.
"I am extremely honored, deeply, deeply blown away," he said. "I can't get my arms around it. It's way bigger than me. I can only talk about it in small ways."
In fact, Jim gets easily sidetracked from talking about the recognition by reminiscing about people he knows in Worthington and the years that he spent honing his craft at the Daily Globe and working with editor Jim Vance.
"We cherish those Worthington days," he said. "(Wife) Judy and I always talk about those days as the best. Those are incredible memories. ... It comes up at least once a week in my life. I did several exhibitions in Europe these last three or four months, and I always show all the pictures from the Globe that I was proud of. People are really quite impressed by this little tiny newspaper that nobody's ever heard of. But that was my education. The Globe can share a good part of this recognition. This is recognition for Jim Vance and the Globe. The Globe is the essence and the foundation of where that all came from."
Eventually, the conversation turns back to the four images that made the Top 40 cut -- although Jim's thoughts are still in southwest Minnesota.
"The one that's the most interesting, the one that I'm most proud of in some ways, is from Blue Mounds, our corner of the world," he noted. "It's not a picture that I ever thought of as an important picture. There were two or three other images of bison from Blue Mounds that I thought were better. ... This obscure picture of bison in the snow kind of surprised me. That's holy land to me. That's the Blue Mounds. My mother grew up on the cliff edge, and right beneath the cliff, that's where I learned to shoot pictures."
Northern Minnesota is now where Jim lives, but the Blue Mounds -- and southwest Minnesota in general -- is where Jim still feels most at home. He was headed there last weekend to reconnect with his roots at Touch the Sky Prairie, a restoration area established by the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation. The foundation recently purchased another farm, Jim noted, expanding the prairie site to 1,000 acres.
"That's where I go to get grounded again," he said, "to talk to farmers."
While the bison photo is significant because it was taken at Blue Mounds, the other three photos also come with personal reflections.
"Those four pictures are like legs on the table," Jim explained. "Each one is really important and represents something that I talk about in my lectures a lot. People ask, 'How do you account for your success?' Simple. Just go to the places you love and the places you know. You can always do a better job when you know something or love something.
"Photography is the same way. The Blue Mounds speaks for itself; it comes out of my blood. The wolf behind the tree -- you can almost throw a stone from my home and hit the place where it was taken. The wolves and the prairie are the two stories I've worked on the most, the two most misunderstood and abused things in nature. Only one half of 1 percent of tallgrass prairie remains, and we've killed almost all the wolves across North America. So, as a journalist, I love to tell their story; it's my passion."
Jim's job with National Geographic and his other endeavors since have taken him all over the world, and the other two photographs represent his favorite locales.
"I also get asked, 'Where are the favorite places you've been?' and outside of Minnesota, it's two places -- Ellesmere Island, where the leaping wolf was, and the Namib Desert, where the oryx is. You can't help but make the connection of that, and it's something I'm really proud of in many ways. There's the photographic language that I learned on the prairie -- that stark place without any trees that people make fun of -- then you look at those other two places with the wolf and the oryx, and there's not a tree within hundreds of miles. Maybe that's why I love those places, responded the way that I did.
"I think I'm going to put a lecture together revolving around these pictures. Young people always want to learn what the secret is to photography -- the lenses, the film, the exposures, the connections -- but it's really about following your heart and going to the places you know and love. Two of those pictures are literally in my backyard."
In addition to his European lectures, recent projects for Jim have included serving on the production team and filming for the BBC "Life" series that recently aired on the Discovery Channel. He has more European exhibits and corresponding lectures scheduled and hopes to begin work on several books that will be self-published.
"I have to own it, be in charge of it," he explained about the self-publishing process, "and that can get very expensive. I want to do a retrospective, a prairie book, a wolf book and maybe some tiny little books. I'm just deciding now what to do first."
The ILCP Top 40 announcement has brought a lot of attention to Jim's work in the last couple of weeks, but he's not really comfortable in the spotlight -- a trait he attributes to his Scandinavian heritage and farm upbringing -- and is anxious to move on to new endeavors.
"It's a little embarrassing to me, and that's not false humility," he said. "But it's probably the most important thing that's ever happened to me in my career, because my peers picked it. It's not an award won in a contest. It's an acknowledgement that really surprised me."
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