Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota prairie native Jim Brandenburg wins top photo honor March 25, 2023

A Brandenburg bison photo hangs to the left and the photographer talks about his work in a video, right, inside the Brandenburg Gallery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

OF ALL THE PHOTOGRAPHY—from general to portrait to sports to nature and wildlife—it is wildlife photography that most impresses me as particularly challenging. And now one of the best wildlife and nature photographers in the world, who happens to be a native of my beloved southwestern Minnesota prairie, has received National Geographic’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Luverne-born and raised Jim Brandenburg, today based in Ely in northern Minnesota, won that top honor. He’s so deserving. His photos are beyond any star rating.

Brandenburg’s published books include “Brother Wolf–A Forgotten Promise.” He is known for his wolf photos, including these displayed in the Luverne gallery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

Brandenburg joins only five other National Geographic photographers who’ve received this award. That he hails from the prairie, my homeland, makes me especially proud.

The entry to the gallery, located in the Rock County Courthouse square. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

Ten years ago, I toured the Brandenburg Gallery, owned and operated by the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce. It was of special interest to me as a photographer. I wanted to study Brandenburg’s images—the light, the perspective, the techniques he uses to draw viewers into scenes.

Some of Brandenburg’s photo books displayed in the Luverne gallery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

I have no ambition to pursue wildlife photography. I don’t have the interest, talent, knowledge of the natural world or patience required for the craft. But I appreciate those who excel in this specialized photography and I can learn from them. Brandenburg has been honing his craft for some 50 years with National Geographic. He’s won countless awards, produced many books filled with his images.

Beautiful rocky landscape of Rock County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

In all of this, this world travel, this move from southern to northern Minnesota, from prairie to northwoods, he’s remained rooted to his roots. He established the Luverne-based Brandenburg Prairie Foundation with a mission “to educate, preserve and expand native prairie in southwest Minnesota.” Brandenburg’s Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought 800 acres of untilled prairie in Rock County some eight miles northwest of Luverne, where visitors can immerse themselves in tallgrass prairie. I regret not walking the Touch the Sky Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge during my 2013 visit to this area. I need to return.

Hiking the path up and through the prairie grass at Blue Mounds State Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

I recognize that to many, this region of Minnesota seems desolate, lacking in beauty, just a place to get through when traveling. But for prairie natives like me, beauty is everywhere. In the wide sky. In sunsets so profoundly beautiful that they almost defy description. In farm sites set like islands among endless fields. In small towns and acres of corn. In prairie grasses swaying in the breeze. I can forever sing the praises of the prairie in refrains of howling wind and songbird and the silence of quiet.

An impressive quarry wall of Sioux quartzite. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

Brandenburg, I expect, experienced all of these, even if his native Rock County differs from my home county of Redwood a bit farther to the north and east. Even on the prairie, landscapes vary. Near Luverne, at Blue Mounds State Park, cliffs of Sioux quartzite rise 100 feet above the plains. It’s amazing, unexpected in this place where prickly pear cacti also grow, where bison graze, where wildflowers bloom.

A gravel road around the state park passes a sheep pasture and country church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2013)

I encourage you, if you’ve never spent time in southwestern Minnesota, to do so this spring or summer. View the landscape through an appreciative lens that takes in every nuance, every detail. Notice the light. Feel the wind. Hear the quiet. Settle into the simplicity of this place that renews the spirit, that a world-class photographer called home. That I, too, once called home.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


16 Responses to “Minnesota prairie native Jim Brandenburg wins top photo honor”

  1. Susan Ready Says:

    Wonderful informative pieces. His work is always top-notch.

  2. Bernadette Arlene Thomasy Says:

    I am fortunate to have been gifted a copy of Jim Brandenburg’s Chased by the Light. Thanks to your report of his award, I will be getting out the book and enjoying his amazing work tonight. We, too, love exploring Blue Mound State Park and some of southwestern Minnesota prairie sites.

    • It’s been awhile since I paged through Chased by the Light. Time to check it out from the library again. How wonderful that you have your own copy. Blue Mounds State Park is such a unique spot on the prairie. Glad you had an opportunity to explore it and other prairie sites.

  3. Fran Duffee Says:

    Thanks for sharing the info on Jim Brandenburg’s well deserved award and all the info on Southwest Minnesota. It is one of many beautiful parts of our state and a fun area to explore.

    And yes, Touch the Sky Prairie is definitely worth a visit.

  4. beth Says:

    I can really understand why you’re so proud of him. what amazing work he’s done and this award is incredible and well-deserved.

  5. Ida Fetterer Says:

    Love this!!

  6. Valerie Says:

    I am familiar with Brandenburg’s work. I’m happy for him. Well-deserved.

  7. Beautiful images. What a talented photographer.

  8. Brandenburg and his photography of wolves – that is how I was introduced to his work. My parents loved receiving the latest edition of Nat Geo when I was growing up. I am proud to have roots in MN. What I do not care for is when someone who has never been there disses on MN. Think rural, grow corn, etc. The landscape of MN is amazing, diverse, and down right pure beauty. The people, the history, the food. The amount of industry too (the companies that call MN home). Congrats Jim! Thanks so much for sharing MN with your readers 🙂 Happy Day – Enjoy

    • Thank you for appreciating both Jim Brandenburg’s photography AND our beautiful state. You’re right in that the geography of Minnesota is incredibly diverse. From prairie to northwoods, to rivers and lakes, to the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota and the North Shore, wow, this state is stunning. When we were in Boston a few years back and people learned we were from Minnesota, their vision of our state was nothing but cold and snow. Yes, that’s true. But we are much more than cold and snow. Much much more!

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