LUVERNE, Minn. – Jim Brandenburg is turning himself this way and that, peering beneath a ledge of purplish Sioux quartzite. Barely waist-high, the outcropping still is prominent on the grassy plain of Touch the Sky Prairie in southwestern Minnesota.
He’s angling for a better view of a small piece of quartzite wedged beneath, as if someone tried to prop up the larger rock. He’s seen such wedges before in his travels to Norway, to Russia. Yet how? By whom? And why?
Brandenburg has ranged this territory all his life — his childhood farm is within sight — and says he often imagines himself in the past, maybe as an Indian on some rock, striking flakes from flint for an arrowhead, flakes that he seeks whenever he sees a pile of dirt heaved by a badger that’s unintentionally brought history to the surface.
Finally, with a decent view of the wedge, he’s ready to take a photo for anthropologist friends who might shed some light on this mystery.
Brandenburg reaches for his iPhone. Just for a moment, he catches himself.
“This is what it’s come to,” he says with a chagrined look, trying to laugh it off. “Even I find myself first reaching for my phone.”
You’ve seen Jim Brandenburg’s photos, whether you know it or not.
The National Geographic has published them for more than 30 years. Four of his images are among the 40 most important nature photographs of all time, as chosen by International League of Conservation Photographers — more than from anyone else, even Ansel Adams.
That photo of a white wolf leaping from one ice floe to another in the vastness of an Arctic sea? That’s his.
Brandenburg, 70, has been named a Hasselblad Master, a Nikon Legend Behind the Lens and a Canon Explorer of Light photographer.
April’s National Geographic featured 93 of his photos, one for each day as Minnesota moves from the spring equinox to the summer solstice, the most photos the magazine has published in one issue. He’s done similar collections of fall and summer. Winter should come next.
It probably will.
Yet there’s an unmistakable sense that Brandenburg is moving on. There are other projects — an anthropological paper about a rare cave image of a wolf in France, his daily one-minute Nature 365 video project, more work on his beloved prairie restoration here.
Then there’s the music. He’s picked up his guitar again, decades after an early stint in rock ’n’ roll that found him sitting in with acts such as Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers.
“Something’s working in my head now musically,” he said. “And I don’t know why.”
He was 14, and his folks ran the Cozy Rest Motel in Luverne in the late 1950s, when big acts played ballrooms, nightclubs and dance halls across the Upper Midwest. Jimmy Thomas, a family friend, was a booking agent so legendary that acts made a point of stopping to see him, often staying at the Cozy Rest.
One night, the bassist for Tommy Blair and the West Coasters fell ill, and Brandenburg was drafted.
“I was the youngest and smallest in my class,” he recalled. “Their Fender bass was taller than I was. My classmates saw me up on stage and were like, ‘Brandenburg, what the hell are you doing?’ ”
Eventually, he and friends formed the Starfires, a band that in 2015 was inducted into the Iowa Rock ’n’ Roll Music Association Hall of Fame.
“I got into music so deep,” he said. “But there was so much sex and drugs, and I was interested in nature. It’s hard to wake up at 5 a.m. to listen to birds when people want you to party all night.”
Something had to give.
Even as a young boy, he said, he had a vision of a cabin with a wood stove in a forest where wolves lived. That perfectly describes Ravenwood, his wilderness home in Ely, Minn.
He stopped playing cold turkey, and took up a camera, a used $3 plastic Argus. His first published photo of a shy fox foreshadowed the patience for which he’d become known.
Fame comes with a price
Again, Brandenburg mentioned that something’s going on with him. He’s not sure what it is. But something’s in his head.
Certainly, his life’s work has changed around him. The ease of digital photography has supplanted the need to switch lenses or take light readings.
“I feel like I’m in a profession full of hobbyists,” he said, hurriedly adding, “and I say that with affection.”
It’s just that when a hundred thousand people are shooting photos every day, “you’re going to get a good photograph,” he said. “Back when I started, you couldn’t fool around and get lucky. You really had to be a craftsman.”
Still, he added, “I enjoy the iPhone — a lot.”
He was sitting in his urban home in Long Lake, where the walls hold more paintings than photographs. On the bookshelves are several stacks of distinctively yellow magazines. His legacy is a lock. But his advice to those aspiring to follow in his footsteps: “Don’t do it.”
It’s not only the digital shift, but his knowledge, gained too late, of how fame can mess with your head. People have camped at the foot of his driveway in Ely, hoping to see him. He’s hobnobbed with royalty, flown on the Concorde, hosted James Taylor in his house, killed time with Jane Fonda.
“And then you call home to ask how things are and hear, ‘Well, the washing machine broke down.’ ”
He and Judy, high school classmates, married, then divorced, then remarried.
Today, their grandchildren visit Touch the Sky.
Of his success, he said only, “I’m good at paying attention. I think I’m very intuitive, which is really based on paying attention.”
Such focus didn’t come naturally. He figures he suffered from attention deficit disorder as a child. “In school, it was always, ‘Jimmy is such a nice little boy — but not particularly bright,’ ” he said. “I got straight F’s in English. And if we had to give a speech? I’d get sick that day.”
He lasted one day in the urban buzz of the University of Minnesota before transferring to Duluth, studying art history. (He fell a few credits short, but later was awarded an honorary Ph.D.) He got a job at the Worthington Daily Globe, where publisher Jim Vance led a paper renowned for its photography and storytelling. He also began doing contract jobs for National Geographic.
Brandenburg will always take photos, but volunteers that the work feels less fulfilling these days.
“Something’s going on inside of me, a seeking or connecting,” he said, again. “It’s almost like going into a trance.”
Maybe there’s music in his future. Maybe he’ll delve more deeply into anthropology.
He has the opportunity to write a paper for France’s l’Institut de Paléontologie Humaine about an ancient cave frieze that’s been studied since 1905, but always as a caribou or reindeer.
He saw it quite by accident, ducking into a cave to escape a rainstorm. Gazing at the image, he saw a wolf, clear as day. Yet wolves are unknown in cave art of the region.
One more thing.
Brandenburg has had his genetic code tracked. He’s always thinking about who’s gone before, and the Genographic Project is led by scientists with National Geographic. The project shows how people came to populate the Earth, tracking routes of DNA patterns.
Brandenburg’s ancestors ended up in Germany and Norway. But about 30,000 years ago, it appears that they were in France. Maybe one was in a cave, chipping out the image of a wolf — an animal that has defined Brandenburg’s career more than any other creature.
He knows how that might sound to some people. But he also knows how he feels.
More than he’s felt in some time, he feels excited.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185 • @odewrites