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Brandenburg's latest: 93 days of spring in Minnesota

Deer antlers, a spring rain and a garter snake come together in this image that's part of Jim Brandenburg's 93-photo essay on spring in this month's National Geographic magazine. Jim Brandenburg phot1 / 4
Bison move across the landscape under a big sky at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, Minn. Jim Brandenburg made the photo with an infrared camera, which gives greater definition to clouds. The photo is part of his 93-picture collection of spring images that appears in this month's National Geographic magazine. Jim Brandenburg photo2 / 4
An otter snacks on a freshly caught fish in this Jim Brandenburg photo. The image is one of 93 in his collection that appears in this month's National Geographic magazine. The photos, which depict spring in Minnesota, were shot in the spring of 2014. Jim Brandenburg photo3 / 4
Jim Brandenburg of Ely has been shooting photos for National Geographic magazine for 38 years. Jim Brandenburg photo.4 / 4

Ely's Jim Brandenburg has made photos across the world on assignment for National Geographic magazine — the plains of Africa, wolves in the high Arctic, the streets of Paris. A single story on bamboo took him to China, Japan and Nepal.

But for his latest collection of photos, published in the April issue of the magazine, he never presented a passport or boarded a plane. He stayed at home.

Chronicling 93 days of spring across Minnesota in 2014, Brandenburg chose one image per day — from the spring equinox to the day before the summer solstice. Many of the images were made near Ravenwood, Brandenburg's home in the woods outside of Ely. Others were made near his birthplace at Luverne, Minn., and elsewhere across Minnesota, including Duluth.

The "93 Days of Spring" collection represents the most photographs ever published in a single issue in National Geographic's 128-year history.

His latest seasonal work complements his "North Woods Journal" series of 90 fall images from the magazine in 1997 and his "Looking for the Summer" collection in 2013.

As with both previous seasonal compilations, Brandenburg shot this one with no intent of seeing it published in National Geographic. In fact, he did not tell his editors at the magazine he was at work on it. They discovered it accidentally in a presentation of Brandenburg's work in London. Immediately, they wanted it for the magazine.

"I didn't think of it to be published," said Brandenburg, 70. "That's the irony of it."

But after having shot the earlier fall and summer collections in his homeland, he wanted to do the same with spring — get outside near home and document the unfolding season.

"I'm a hunter who traded his gun for a camera," Brandenburg said in a telephone interview last week. "My ancestors had to go out every day and bring home the bacon. I think that's what I'm doing. It's primal. It's my backyard."

Both of his earlier seasonal collections were published as books, and a book is planned for this spring project as well, to be called "The Awakening." No publication date has been announced.

While many of these photos were made near his home in Ely, others were made close to his second home near the Twin Cities and on the prairies near his childhood home, where he first began taking photographs. There, his Brandenburg Prairie Foundation has set aside 1,000 acres of land called "Touch the Sky Prairie." Brandenburg grew up hunting and trapping on the prairies, learning the ways of animals and honing his tracking skills.

"Some of this is paying homage to my beginnings," Brandenburg said, "touching that stone again where you started. It's an honoring thing."

Many of his images in this series include animals — the bison herd at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, a deer skull and antlers half-submerged in a wetland, a bald eagle dying in a pond.

"Brandenburg is the Wayne Gretzky of wildlife photography," said photographer Layne Kennedy of Minneapolis. "He walks step for step with all critters and more often than not, he is one step ahead. His gift of anticipation allows him to reveal to others how wildlife lives its life."

Brandenburg acknowledges that wisdom he gained in the natural world helps him make compelling photos. He's often been told he must have some "sixth sense" about animals, but he disputes that.

"I think I'm just very, very attentive," he said. "I've been doing it for a long, long time ... but I pride myself more with my eye than my ability to track. That's where I put my energy. I put more energy into framing my photographs than trying to trick an animal."

His signature image in this collection depicts just the lower portion of a swallowtail butterfly clinging to the bark of a birch tree. Brandenburg can't explain precisely why he composed the photo that way.

"It's an intuitive, instinctive thing," he said. "You create dynamics. You create some mystery. I want every photo to be a work of art, edgy, yet literal in a sense."

The temptation in viewing Brandenburg's spring collection is to move ahead a little too swiftly with an eagerness to see the next image. In the magazine, the photos cover seven pages, two of them with fold-outs. Most of the images are small as published, out of necessity, and many viewers may look forward to a more generous treatment in the book.

But even in the somewhat compressed format of the magazine's pages, the viewer sees Brandenburg's eye at work in each image. His subjects range from the miniscule to the expansive. From a leopard frog in reindeer moss to a bison herd beneath a prairie sky. Many of the images emphasize line, form, texture and edges. Spruce snags and bent grass in snow. Scallops of ice along a stream.

Many capture moments in the lives of wild creatures in spring settings. A chickadee in a snow squall. An otter chewing on a fish. A flotilla of ducks in the rain. Sunlit turkey gobblers in full strut.

Like so much of Brandenburg's previous work, many of these pictures include subtle and unexpected elements. The deer skull and antlers lie in the pond in a downpour. And then one notices the garter snake wriggling across the base of the antlers.

"This collection of images, much like Jim's other work in his home state, is deeply personal, a close encounter and subtle collection of artistic details of the changing season," said Brian Peterson, a Minneapolis Star Tribune photographer who recently published a collection of

photos called "Minnesota State of Wonders."

"Jim is a master."

When he started this project, Brandenburg limited himself to one photo per day — made at midday when photographic light is most unforgiving. He quickly realized that was a mistake.

"After the 13th day, I thought, 'I need a shrink. I will not finish this project,'" he said.

He jettisoned that arbitrary framework and let himself shoot at all hours of the day.

"Then it flew," Brandenburg said. "I realized it was infinitely better. I'm an artist, not a person who follows the clock."

It still required immense discipline.

"I can't take a day off," he said. "It's a forced march. But there's also an incredible joy."

Brandenburg has worked as a contract photographer for National Geographic for 38 years and is perhaps best known for his photographs of wolves in both Minnesota and the Arctic. While studying art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he also shot film footage for a nature series on WDIO-TV. He left UMD in 1970 without graduating to travel Canada's Arctic and shoot film of Inuit families with Duluth pathologist and anthropologist Dr. Art Aufderheide. The two spent six weeks making a film documentary of Inuit people living a nomadic lifestyle.

Brandenburg subsequently was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Minnesota.

He has twice been named Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association. Four of his wildlife photos are included among the Top 40 Nature Photographs of all time by the International League of Conservation Photographers.

He was the recipient of the World Achievement Award from the United Nations Environmental Programme in Stockholm in recognition of his using nature photography to raise public awareness for the environment.

Brandenburg has now completed 90- to 93-day collections of images portraying spring, summer and fall in his homeland. Those who follow his work must be wondering if a winter project will follow.

"Yes," Brandenburg said. "At some point."

Brandenburg’s “Nature365” videos online through this year

Jim Brandenburg’s day-by-day photographic portrayal of spring in Minnesota follows his collaborative Nature365 project, a one-minute daily video online for the entire year. Nature365 made its debut in 2015 and is being repeated throughout this year.

Each day’s online offering, almost poetic in its presentation, is compiled from video Brandenburg has shot over many years near his home in the North Woods near Ely. Most of the episodes include video of wolves, deer, ravens, loons, swans and other animals. Friends of his in Paris saw the videos and thought they should be shared. Brandenburg is partnering with Laurent Joffrion of Paris, a film shooter and editor, who has put together the videos. Millions around the world have watched them.

“There are a lot of people from around the world who watch — China, Japan, the Middle East,” Brandenburg said. “I’m shocked and really moved by it.”

The videos are presented free, with no commercial sponsorship. To watch Nature365, go to nature365.tv.