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