A conversation with National Geographic photographer, Jim Brandenburg, at his Ravenwood home in Ely

Growing up in Laverne, Minnesota, world-renowned National Geographic photographer, Jim Brandenburg, started life as a typical farm boy in southwestern Minnesota. But when his family moved to town and bought a motel, his life became anything but typical. Their small town motel would become a hub for big name bands like Diana Ross and the Supremes. As a little kid, these bands would play for him and take him to dances. These experiences would later turn Jim on to music and playing on the road. At a very young age, he played with bands like the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry. By age 19, he burned out, left the music business and got into photography.

His good friend James Taylor called him up one day and wanted Jim to do his cover photography, a wolf. Taylor traveled to Ely to see wolves and soon after they did benefit concerts for wolves  with all of the money going back to the environment. Deeply vested in environmental issues, it only makes sense that he'd go on to be one of the most prestigious wildlife photographers the world had ever seen. 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. His career with National Geographic would span over three decades and include 23 magazine stories, several television features and many National Geographic books, including Brother Wolf, White Wolf and his highly regarded series where he shot just one photo a day for 90+ days: Chased By The Light, Looking For The Summer (the first digital story in National Geographic history) and his newest title, The Awakening: 93 Days of Spring (the most photographs run in one story in the 128-year history of National Geographic Magazine).

He's traveled all over the world and chooses to make Minnesota his home. 

C: So where did your passion for the environment come from? Was it before you started taking photos?

J: I started by being interested in prairies. The trees don't grow there. It's just grass. But it's a rich heritage of grass. 300 species per acre. And we have a new Touch of Sky Prairie which is a 1000 acres in Rock County near Laverne where I grew up, about a mile from where I was born. It's all native prairie. 

So I think it came from that. But it probably came mostly by way of the camera. I became interested in photography because of nature and I became more interested in nature because of the camera. So the camera has always led me to these places. To this place (Ravenwood) and travelling around the world. So I suppose it's a combination of an inner kind of a spirit feeling towards nature. I also felt that nature needed a voice. 

And I went into journalism, newspaper work. One of the first things I did after the band. I went to college. I was an art major. I left the University to make a movie on the Inuit people, the Eskimo folks up in the far north. I never went back to school. I never got my degree. But the University gave me an honorary PHD finally for my work.  So I'm really proud of that. That's one of the things I'm most proud of. 

I was trained in art but then went into photography and that opened up more and more doors of nature. Some people say that some of the photographs of mine speak to them somehow. Some photographer friends of mine, their work speaks to me. And paintings and music. And so it... you get rewards from that and it takes you to the next step and you get rewards from that and then pretty soon... here you are.

And I'm kind of looking for something new now.

C: Are you? 

J: Yeah.

C: You shoot digital now, I assume?

J: You know, I'm a real traditionalist. At the National Geographic I was very conservative. Before everybody got automatic exposures and automatic focus lenses and the latest cameras, I always stayed with old cameras. I shot less film than, I think, anybody. They would shoot sometimes a thousand rolls of film for a story. I'd shoot a hundred. And a hundred sounds like a lot, doesn't it? 

But Nikon gave me their first digital camera and I kind of thought, "Hmmm." click click and put it up on the computer and something intrigued me about it. I got to thinking it's more like the eye. With film, it's very complex. It's full of chemicals and this plastic and they have to paint that plastic and put holes in the plastic and then put all of these chemicals on it. And then you have to send it in and it gets processed and chemicals do this and do that. Then you get it back and it's a transparency and then you have to scan it. Making prints from it was always awkward.

With digital it was like the human eye to me. The light went to a sensor and then it was out there in the world. Just like the sensor in your eye. And I saw it as more organic somehow. And then I could make my own prints. 

But when you're shooting, "I wonder what that exposure looked like" and you didn't have to wait for Kodak to process it and come back. There's a purity to that but no matter how good you are you're never quite sure. And with digital, you could see, "Ahh, a little overexposed. How about if I raise it up a little bit." So you've got instant feedback. Just like your eye. Your eye compensates for everything. Your eye never overexposes or underexposes. It's always automatic. Well then why can't we just use a tool? The final thing is that I just want a good print. All of these hocus pocus, Kodak and film and chemistry... why don't I just go direct? From the camera, straight to the print that I can make myself out here, open up a gallery... and that's what we have. Because of digital photography.

But a lot of people resisted that. When we first opened up the gallery, they'd talk about it, "Is this digital? Is this real? Is this real or is this digital?"  It's digital. "Oh."

C: Both, right?!

J: I had the first digital story in the Geographic magazine and the response from it... and they talked about it as the first digital story... the response from the readers was rejection. It wasn't real. 

C: Isn't that interesting, sitting here today, knowing that cell phones and all of the other technology we have to snap a really good quality picture on an iPhone or whatever, and it was so rejected back in the day.

J: When I first started photography, it was Kodachrome 25. That was the ASA, the ISO. But, I've got one of these bigger iPhones. One of the newer ones. The quality of that is probably better. If I was just going to make a general photograph of you guys, or if I had Kodachrome and do it the old fashioned way... using my cell phone is probably quite a bit higher quality. If you'd have told me that when I started, it's just... it would have been so much easier. Do you ever use your cameras on your phone as a panorama? It's unbelievable. I shot one just the other night. I went out to the lake and I had this little camera and I just did it once. It was dark. No way would I have been able to shoot that with Kodachrome. It would have been way too dark. I could have done it with a tripod, maybe. I just went out and I did a quick take. 

And that would make a print way bigger than that (motions with arms). A really high quality print. Now that's almost cheating. And it took no technology, I just raised the camera, pushed a button and painted and came back home. I made one frame. Not like... How can you not be... but it's also putting us all out of business.

It's so easy to do now. That those of us who learned to do it the old way, with Kodachrome and film and the complications... you had to be a really good technician. Now everybody can do it. And that's good. Everybody's enjoying it. But there isn't as much room for us anymore.

C: How did you get into National Geographic and how did you feel when you had your first assignment?

J: Unbelievable... Unbelievable.

C: How old were you?

J: I was 32. How did I feel? I can't even... I can't describe that feeling. It was beyond belief. For someone like me, who was pretty, I don't want to say I was insecure... I was quiet. Farming, you know, southern MN rural farming community.... The pictures opened up the door for me. Not me. Not my personality. I was shy. The photographs opened the door. Then I gained more confidence. Now I love public speaking. Nothing scares me. I can walk into any situation. Only because the rewards of people respecting my work and hearing my voice. Not this voice so much but the written word. I love to write. I love to photograph.... well not as much as I used to.

C: You don't love to photograph as much as you used to?

J: I don't know why. I don't think I've ever really said that to anybody before. It's dangerous for me to say that. I've never said that for print before. I have to explain it.

C: Wasn't your Chased By The Light project a challenge to get your passion back about photography after being so commercial with National Geographic- on assignment and deadlines?

J: That's a good point. That's exactly... you read that and saw that and I did it because I was tired of computers and tired of... just a lot of attention. I got out of music for the same reason. I didn't like all of the attention. You know, to be successful. I liked it but I didn't like it. We all want to be loved and respected and recognized, don't we? But we don't. It was too much. 

So you ask... what's the right way I can talk about this? Because I haven't thought about it enough, but I can feel. I think it's the sheer numbers of photographs out there now, flying around the internet. The sheer number of photographers that are doing a good job. There's a lot of great photography, just go on the internet and type in "Best pictures of the week" or "Best pictures of the day" and you'll get National Geographic website stuff come in, incredible, unbelievable pictures... and I think I'm becoming overwhelmed with it and I look at photography- the numbers of nature shows and TV shows- I don't watch them as much anymore. There are so many of them, I can't keep track.

When I started, there were three channels and one of them had National Geographic specials on them. And that was pretty much it. And I think I'm overwhelmed and I'm looking... I wish I could reinvent. I did that with Chased By The Light. I think I reinvented myself a little bit without knowing it. 

C: Will there be another book? 

J: Oh yeah, several. I have three... four books ready. I have a retrospective on my whole life's work. I have a prairie book. I have another wolf book. I have the Spring. I have to shoot winter now. I've shot the three seasons- spring, summer, fall and now I have winter so there's probably four or five books and there's probably another book.

C: When you do these 90 days... I don't even know how to verbalize it... it just totally changed my opinion of photography because I'm a shutter crazy person.

J: I can be, too.

C: Yeah? How in the world did you discipline yourself to take one photograph a day? How did you decide what the photo would be?

J: I spent a lot of time in Japan where rituals and discipline are very important. I'm not particularly disciplined; kind of the opposite. I kind of go by how I feel. I kind of needed that, I thought it would be good for me. I wrote about it in Chased By The Light. And I did it privately and silently. I didn't tell many people. I just felt I needed it. I needed some discipline and I wanted to do something that maybe hadn't been done before. Now a lot of people are doing it. A lot of people, I'm proud of that, too.

C: Yeah absolutely!

J: The discipline... it was difficult but not that difficult because that's what I do. And I was lucky, I didn't have a job and I could do that. The winter is going to be a little difficult... for variety, I think.

C: Do you think you'll do this coming winter?

J: Probably not. You know, that's something else that's interesting... I don't plan these things. I think it's just a few days before, I kind of think, "Maybe I'll do it this year." That seems kind of strange doesn't it? You take 90 days and you hadn't planned them out. You can't do anything else but that.

C: Yeah, that'd be tough.

J: I thought I might go back to film. Maybe shoot the big view cameras. Just one sheet. 4x5 or 8x10. I've thought about doing just one click 

C: That'd be incredible!

J: We'll see. 

The Chased By The Light story in the National Geographic really changed my life, and the book, Chased By The Light book.


The editor, he called me up.. and I had left the Geographic. I just walked out one day- not angry... just kind of bored, tired. Like I left the rock and roll business.  Literally one day I just quit. Not in anger just decided to quit. I did the same with the Geographic. Several years later the editor called up and said, "Jim, what are you working on lately? Do you want to do wolves of Yellowstone?" No. "Can I come up? Can I fly out and see you and talk to you?" I said, "Sure."

I remember he was sitting right there (motions to the couch). He said, "What would you like to do?" Oh I don't know. He said, "What have you been doing?" Oh I did this funny project. I shot one picture a day. He said, "Can I see it?" And I had small prints of them in the drawer; just a stack of 90 prints.  And he said, "Can I bring this back to Washington?" I said, "That's not a National Geographic story, John. There are too many pictures. You'd have to run them all and they're not that good. It is just a personal diary. They're not meant to be..." He said, "let me take them back." I said, "Don't embarrass me."

He got back, showed them to the editor and called me up, "Jim, we want to run this as soon as possible as the cover story." I said, "Don't joke with me. This is a very personal, kind of a spiritual story for me. Therapeutic." He says, "No we're not kidding. We're going to do it." I wasn't real happy because I didn't think they were good enough... I still don't. There are two, three I like... So that's how that happened. I don't remember how this one happened (points to book), this is the Summer story. This is the first digital story in the history of the magazine. I think John just called me up again one day and said, "Now what are you doing?" "Oh nothing," I said. But I did Summer, the first digital story. So my grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren (flipping through pages)... 

I have two things that no one can ever take away- that it's the first digital story. I'm kind of proud of that. Pioneer. The Spring story is the most number of pictures in the history of the magazine. So I got the first digital story and then the most pictures.

But the Spring story... I started to shoot every picture exactly at 12 o'clock noon. I set my iPhone so every day the alarm would go right exactly at 12 and I was going to shoot... click the picture at noon. I did it for 17 days and then I kind of started to go crazy. I thought "I can't do this." Talk about discipline... I couldn't do it. So I decided I'm just going to shoot when I see the right picture. I'm not going to shoot ... 'cause noon is the worst time of the day to shoot normally because it's harsh light and I wanted to get... I got kind of cocky and smart, "well, I can make a picture at noon." (smirks) And I just couldn't.

Day 17, that eagle was just sitting there. I kept looking at it... "it's not a very good picture" and then I decided I can't do this anymore. He flew and I got the picture and it was like 12:15 or something... Then I've had more fun. (smiles)

I'm not giving up photography but I'm shifting into something. I'm more interested in music. I'm playing guitar a lot more. I've got a couple movies I'm starting to work on. One for the Bell Museum of Natural History that just got funded; big 70-80 million dollar museum about natural history of Minnesota - I'll be making a movie for them. I've got the French one.

So I'm not giving it up but it's... it's shifting. I wish I had a better answer but I haven't thought about it enough, but I can feel it. It starts with feelings, doesn't it? Before we know... when you met your mates, you didn't KNOW it, you had a feeling first. And then it started talking to you, "oh he's kind of cute. He's kind of nice. What is it about him?" It came as a feeling. And then it came as a thought. Then it came as action. I'm kind of in that feeling stage. Creeping towards the thought. And I may... I don't know. If National Geographic wanted me to do a story on something, I'm not sure I'd do it.

C: You're not sure you would?

J: I've been asked several times and turned them down. Not lately. 

You know, this National Geographic thing you asked about- how did I feel? Unbelievably ecstatic. Incredibly proud. Since I was a little boy, I always looked at the magazine with the yellow border.

C: What advice would you give to someone starting out doing photography- wildlife photography or general?

J: To make a living? Or just for enjoyment? If they want to be a professional, I'd say "sell vacuum cleaners and enjoy it and do photography as a hobby." (smirks) Um, I would say... people think they have to go off to romantic places like Africa or the Arctic... this is my backyard and I've done it three times now. Three times 90 is how many pictures? In National Geographic! And they're all in my backyard. I don't think they'll ever be another photographer in the history of the magazine who'll ever have that many pictures in three stories. And if I do four... And they're all in my backyard. Places I know really, really well. I've been by them a thousand times. And that tells you something- you don't have to be in the sexy places. You don't have to. Go to the places you know and love and good pictures will come... and it can change your life. It changed my life.