Growing up in Luverne, Minnesota, world-renowned National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg started life as a typical farm boy in southwestern Minnesota. His life would become anything but typical. An esteemed environmentalist, dedicated to the preservation of natural habitats and a passion for wildlife, Brandenburg uses his photography to bring awareness to the environment. He's done assignment work for The New York Times, Time, Audubon, Smithsonian, Natural History, Geo, Modern Maturity, BBC Wildlife, Outdoor Photographer, National Wildlife and Outside. For over three decades, his career with National Geographic would include 23 magazine stories, several television features and many National Geographic books. His assignments have taken him to every corner of the world. This global traveler, still residing in Minnesota, shares more of his story here, as well as introductions to some of his other extraordinary talents and accolades.
C: Have you always been doing video or is that something new that you've gotten into?
J: The first thing I did for the Geographic back before there was video, were movies and movie film. 38 years ago was my first movie for the National Geographic. I was really young. A movie called Strange Creatures of the Night about owls, so I worked in the night. I've probably shot almost as much video but people don't think of me as that. I've done several movies. Just had a movie come out now with an actress in Los Angeles; wanted to make a movie about wolves and my connection with wolves. It's on iTunes now called, Medicine of the Wolf. I'm kind of an actor in a way. Not acting, really, but a lot of on camera talking about philosophy. A French film company wants to do a movie on me now.
C: You talk a lot about Europe. Why do you think you're more recognizable in Europe than in your home state? Why do you think that is?
J: I don't really know. My photography, I think, resonates. I do a lot of work in France and they kind of invented it (photography). I think of any culture I've been around, the French really honor photography. They look at it differently. Americans kind of think of photography as more of a snapshot- not disrespectful- but it's just more casual. With the French, they really think of it as an art form.
I feel good there, too. And they can see it. You go where you're loved. And they like me a little bit. I thought it was also kind of a challenge. If you can make it as a photographer in France, you can make it!
Nature 365 is based in France. They saw the work. They saw my video. I gave them all of my big hard drives full of video... 6 terabytes. Hours and hours and hours and hours of video.
C: And is this video that you've done over your career?
J: Over the last 10 years; since high definition. And they've gone through it so every minute that adds up to 365 days is 6 hours for the year. It's free! A lot of people see it as kind of a little... a little inspiration, moment of meditation, a prayer. Just a gentle... "that was a nice moment."
When you're in nature like I am, still photography is nice but you get a whole new dimension with a moving camera; with video. You can tell a different story. I'm really a storyteller. I was born to tell stories on a camera. I was quiet and shy and I think I didn't want to speak a lot when I was young. I couldn't get up in front of the class. I couldn't do it. So my camera did it.
I'm really interested in anthropology. Interested in the people that were here before us... the Native American people. I am kind of obsessed with it. If I had to do it all over again, I'd be an archeologist. I like digging. I don't dig for artifacts but I like to find out the stories. What did these people do? What did that mean? And I don't know why I'm so interested. I made quite an important discovery in France last year in the caves. There's cave art in France that goes back 30,000 years. I became extremely interested in that stuff and I study it a lot. 30,000 years ago they were making pictures on walls. 30,000 years ago! I'm just interested... Why? I don't know why. It fascinates me. The people that were here and the mysteries that went with them.
C: And the languages that don't exist anymore.
J: Oh! Don't exist! I know. It fascinates me! And I've lived with a lot of cultures.
I made a discovery over in France last year in one of the caves of an image of a wolf. Every species is depicted on the walls of the caves that they lived with back then- 30,000 years ago. Every species... bears, horses, rhinoceroses, woolly mammoths... two things never show up on the cave walls: people- they didn't paint each other, they didn't paint themselves. They didn't paint wolves... Why?
Well, they didn't paint themselves because, maybe like we say "graven image," some religions don't want their photographs taken because it's taboo. We assume, but nobody knows, that might have been taboo. But why the wolf? It was part of the family. Dogs. Dogs came from the wolf about 30,000 years ago. They took the wolf and started feeding them and they'd come in and they'd get the puppies and they'd train them and they'd get tamer and tamer and tamer. This is my theory. The wolves weren't on the cave walls. They're non-existent. And there are thousands and thousands of paintings and several caves there, all through southern Europe. There are reindeer and horses and birds and everything but not wolves. Well, I think they were part of the family. They used them for hunting. They used them for protection; for companionship. So they were family. They didn't paint them.
I discovered a big beautiful bas relief sculpture, or carving, of a wolf. Now the Ministry of Prehistory wants me to do a scientific paper and present it to them. I told Judy this and I've told some other people this but it may be the most important thing I've ever done in my life. Does that sound funny to you? This discovery?
J: That's what it feels like to me because it's a discovery that has incredible implications, culturally. It isn't a cute picture, a fun picture, a beautiful picture someone hangs on their wall... "oh that's really a nice photograph."
15,000 years ago they started painting themselves. They started painting themselves and they started painting wolves. Doesn't that tell you something? No one has made that connection. No one has made that discovery. So they're waiting for me to do the paper. I'm really curious about those who came before us, before our culture. Long before... I can't explain it.
C: Maybe it's not something that needs to be explained. It's a pretty powerful thing that we're all on this earth... so who came before us? Who lived here before we did?
J: I think it's honoring.
There were two subjects as a photographer that really obsessed me... I was obsessed with prairies and wolves. And I spent most of my life intensely telling those stories. I've very proud of it. I thought the prairie was the most persecuted and abused landscape in North America. It's the biggest ecosystem with the least left with 1/2 of 1% left of native prairie- unbroken, tall grass prairie. 1/2 of 1% remains! It was the whole center of the Great Plains.
And the other piece of nature? I thought wolves were the most persecuted, most hated animal in the world. More than lions. More than crocodiles. And I just felt I needed to tell that story, as a journalist. Well, now it seems like I need to tell this story and I'm not a trained anthropologist, archeologist, or a paleontologist, but there's something that's boiling up inside of me that I want to be involved in that somehow. Not at the exclusion of photography but there are only so many hours in the day.
C: Is that freeing?
J: No. It's haunting. I feel guilty. We're kind of moving on... not giving anything up necessarily but we're evolving into more reflective.
So I've got shows in Europe that I'll be doing, I have to present the paper on this wolf discovery and then I don't know what I'm going to do.
J: I had done a big National Geographic story on wolves. That was probably one of my favorite stories. You know Will Steger? Will and I were not nearly as well known then; we met on the street and he said, "Jim, I want you to introduce me to the National Geographic. I want to go to the North Pole." Oh... okay. He said, "you know, I was up there on Ellesmere Island... there's a pack of white wolves that followed us. They weren't afraid of us. This white wolf pack family wowed us." I said, "that's where I want to go" and so I introduced him to the National Geographic. I did the story on the North Pole expedition for National Geographic. It got me to Ellesmere Island. I went to the wolves. This is probably my favorite story, by quite a bit, that I've ever done. Living with a pack of wolves... literally, for three years. Here's the den (shows us photos in book). And here I am. The puppies would come and chew on my shoelaces. For three years. Here's my tent (another photo), you can see it, it's down in the valley here.
... and this is how my life has gone. I'll see something and I somehow can paint the picture into the future. I saw Will that day- he wanted to go to the North Pole, "there're white wolves up there"- okay, I'm going to get you into the Geographic. I can't take all of the credit for that but I did open up some doors. He had to do a lot of heavy lifting. I just made an introduction. That's a nice story. Two kids from Ely. The most important thing I've ever done and probably the most important thing he's ever done.
C: So what is it about Ely with Jim Brandenburg and Will Steger and the Schurke's? Why? What keeps you all here?
J: Oh, it's wild and raw. It's the wilderness. It's the Boundary Waters. What is it about Ely that brings people? It's the end of the road. Literally, the end of the road. You can go another two miles that way and it's the end of the road and the Boundary Waters and you go up here another mile and it's the end of the road and Boundary Waters and then there are no roads. You can't even take a motorboat in most of those places. You can't fly lower than a mile - you have to be up a mile above. So it's wilderness. That's what brings the people here. All the people that you mentioned are here because of the wilderness.
There's some sadness now. I came here because of wolves. I had
for 30 years... you see the wolves in the Nature 365 videos- you see them a lot. They're gone... the wolf hunt. There are no wolves here.
J: I haven't seen a wolf in 5 years. I used to see them every day. Hunting goes back thousands and thousands and thousands of years, and sadly sometimes people see wolves as a competitor. I hunt with my camera.
I do it this way (books). Get them inspired to love nature. The little things. This is probably my best known photograph in some ways (Arctic Wolf Leaping).
C: It's one of my favorites.
J: This is probably my second best known photograph. (Brother Wolf) This was shot- I could almost throw a stone down to the land just down over there (motioning). That picture has become... it has changed peoples minds on wolves. Not that it's a happy picture but it makes people feel they're connected. Something about this photograph, they become... they make inquiries. I've traveled all over the world talking about this photograph and the same stories just keep coming. It opens up doors and inch by inch by inch by inch...
I made these two photographs in the same month in 1986. I was up in Ellesmere Island and I made this picture (Arctic Wolf Leaping) and came back here for something and I made this (Brother Wolf). Two of my best known. How do you explain that? Is that some sort of strange coincidence?
J: They went through a million photographs to find the cover (British Museum of Natural History's "50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year; How Wildlife Photography Became Art"). I was the Chairman of this competition. It's the world's greatest nature photography contest and over the 50 years they've had a million photographs published and looked at. So they had to have a cover and they used this (Brother Wolf) as the cover picture to represent the 50 years. I'm really really proud of that.
C: That's amazing.
J: They had a second edition. They wanted to redo the book slightly smaller and they wanted a different cover... (Arctic Wolf Leaping)
C: There you are.
J: Of a million photographs, they picked these two. And I can't help but think... I'm really... to say I'm really proud of it isn't the right word. It's like strangely beautiful. Is this really true?
C: Have you had any adverse encounters with any wildlife?
J: Yeah, I was charged by a rhinoceros- broke my shoulder. But I've never been attacked by a wolf. I was living with those wolves, thousands and thousands of encounters there. And here, over 30 years. I was out with wolves all the time. Never had an encounter. But I've been charged by rhinos several times and one injured me pretty bad. Poisonous snakes hit at me. Grizzly bears, a couple encounters with grizzly bears- a little tricky.
But I like it. Sometimes I wish wolves were more aggressive, it'd be more intense for me. Kind of "one on one." When you're in grizzly country it's pretty common, every year someone gets killed by a grizzly bear. You look at nature differently and you act differently when you're in grizzly country. You feel you're alive- like you're not alone.
C: Is it a respect for them?
J: Yes. I kind of wish that the wolves were a little more grrr. That's what people think anyway so why don't they just act that way? My mother, bless her soul, she said, "Jim, you're going to get eaten by a wolf someday."
You know the wolf image I saw in Europe on the cave wall? That's dog related. That'll be one of my next books. It's called Man's Oldest Friend. So we go back 30,000 years with the dog, all other domestic animals are about 6,000 or 8,000 years - cattle, chickens, cats. Dogs go back 4x older so they are man's oldest friend. That's one of the books. It's done. It's all written. I have all of the photographs. I just, I need a bigger ego (laughs). I feel like I'm bragging all of the time.
C: You've got five books ready to put out?! You're just going to do them incrementally?
J: I may never do them.
C: Yeah? When the timing is right?
J: The wolf book is the next one that's really done. And the retrospective which is an exhibition travelling through Europe now. 120 pictures of my whole career starting with the first picture when I was 14.
I think... you asked me why Europeans?... they like my story here. They don't have wilderness in Europe. It's all taken. There are some National Parks but they just love how I talk about living with wolves or saving the prairie, going back to Judd Lake and having a big bush camp. And when they come over here, they can't believe that Americans can do this, "you mean you own this?" They just can't comprehend it; that scale and the size. Americans think big. We have a lot of space but they're really intrigued by the wildness that we have here and how we relate to it. They're also very interested in Native Americans. I talk about that a lot. They like me to interpret it, what I know about it.
C: You've traveled all over the world. What's your favorite location on planet earth?
J: A magazine in France picked 30 photographers in the world recently and wanted us to pick three of our favorite places in the world. Then they were going to pick the one place and then we're going to write about it. So I picked Ravenwood- the lake where I live here, and I picked Namibia- that picture of an oryx and a sand dune, and I picked Ellesmere Island- where the white wolf are... And they decided they wanted to do my home here, so I wrote about that.
It's hard to pick favorites. I don't know if I have a favorite place. It's hard to have a favorite... if you have a bunch of kids, you can't pick the favorite (we laugh). I would have said it was here (Ravenwood) but I can't say it anymore. Because it's kind of broken. It's the wolf hunt and I know there's a lot of poaching now. It feels haunted to me. It's silent. The wolves.
I have a trail cam I use, every day it's running. It photographs everything. I haven't been here since January, there's only two wolves... wolves we used to see run down this driveway every day. They just lived all around... two wolves since January have walked down the driveway.
And just once each, two different wolves- they're probably heading across the country. One had a big radio collar on it. It's haunting to me. I go out to the lake and used to... I went out the other night and howled the first night we came here. I went straight out, howled and howled. I used to hear wolves come back to me... and
Touch The Sky Prairie is a pretty special place to me. That could be a favorite place. Ellesmere Island and the wolf story is my favorite story. I haven't been there since. I was there three years working and then left and I'm not sure I want to... I got offered opportunities to go back but I don't really want to. You can't go back, you know? You can't. All those wolves in my photographs have died. Every time I look at these wolf pictures I think, "they're all gone." It's strange. It's like kids, friends.
C: It's an intimate relationship for that long.
J: Yes. When you live with a pack of wolves... I crawled into the den. Crawled in the den when the pups were just a couple weeks old. I was with them when they were killing muskoxen. Very intimate. They killed a baby muskoxen, brought it back to the pups. Very, very intimate. I think about this story a lot. Just think... living with them... never had a problem with them.
C: That's incredible.
J: (flipping through White Wolf: Living with an Arctic Legend) Here's a puppy, a yearling. They played and played and played and played. Here's the tent, that's where I lived. The den was right here and they'd come in and they'd pull the sleeping bag out... try to eat my food.
It was dark six months of the year because it's so far north. But then in the summer the sun never went down. The sun was up 24 hours.
C: I just can't even imagine... everything you've done and every place you've been... it's incredible.
My husband and I had been to Ely and your gallery years and years ago but the first time I came back to Ely for the magazine, I walked
into your gallery and there was a young kid, I don't know- maybe 8 or 9 years old. The Chased By The Light video was playing and he was standing there watching it. I believe it was Marcia who started a conversation with him and I heard her tell him the story of one photograph every day. This kid, at 8 or 9, really seemed to understand the depth of that and I walked out of there going "wow!" That was so cool to overhear and to witness this young kid thinking, "that's incredible!"
J: Might have changed him.
J: I've had lots of letters from people who have said that it has changed their life forever; not the pictures but the text in Chased By The Light. It's nice to get letters from people. It's nice to get letters from people when they say that "reading this book changed my life." And I'm not sure how or why but that really affects me.
Maybe it will make a difference. You were there. You saw that.
C: I'll never forget that either. It was incredible. You never know how something like that is going to affect somebody.
J: When you least expect it to. Like when you meet your mate or meet somebody... meeting Will Steger on the main street of Ely one day and "are you Jim?" Yeah. "Hi, I'm Will Steger." Two hours later, we got the deal done and he goes to the North Pole and I do the most incredible story of my life.
And being open... I'm waiting for one of those opportunities now. Maybe I should work for your magazine.
C: You're hired! (we laugh) We're very cheap! (more laughter)
J: So am I. (smiling) (we all laugh)