In the Footsteps of Brandenburg / by Michael Zwack

To start off...a little personal history.  Having studied film photography in high school and college, I graduated with a photography minor from the University of Minnesota in 2004.  For those of you who got started in digital photography will know this is when digital began.  Having studied primarily film techniques for my entire journey up to that point, I was now graduated in a newly budding digital market with no idea how to use a digital camera.  Early digital cameras were interesting to say the least and not nearly as developed as today, yet knowing this was the future of photography I began my career with zero budget; learning as I went.

It was during those early college, digital days I first began hearing rumblings about a National Geographic photographer, who slowly becoming burnt out from a life traveling and shooting around the world, found renewed creative energy by attempting something never done before.  He took one shot a day from the Autumnal Equinox to Winter Solstice.  Whereas this initially may seem like an uninspiring task, one truly has to grasp the immensity of such an attempt. One click of the shutter, each day, for 90 days.  For any photographers who haven't had the chance to shoot film it means the exposure settings, calculations, lighting, focus, composition, and everything else that goes into a photograph had to be perfect before clicking the shutter...there were no retries and he wouldn't know the outcome until the image was developed.  This was ultimately 1 shot, 1 kill, for 90 days straight.     

It was upon researching this and coming across photographer Jim Brandenburg that my photo journey truly began.  I have since broken down his images & techniques to learn much of the fundamentals of photography.  From lighting and composition to creatively using a camera to make visual works of art, my photography has improved immensely by following his work...So to pay homage, I went walking in his footsteps, photographing the tall grass prairie of Minnesota.    

Blue Mounds Dusk.  1/30 @ F/11   ISO 100  16mm

Located in the Southwest corner of Minnesota, bordering South Dakota on one side and Iowa the other,  is an unassuming small farm town named Luverne.  The type of small town one sees Clark Kent being raised, with simple, traditional midwest values.  This is where Jim Brandenburg would begin his photographic journey, as a young boy on the native tall grass prairies...truly, greatness from small beginnings.    

Having family history reaching to the same corner of the state, I couldn't help but draw a parallel to our photographic paths. He being a native Minnesotan with family from the same area and residing in the great north woods, where I learned my trade.  I suppose to be fair, I do happen to be lacking in the whole 30+ years as a contract photographer for National Geographic part...It would appear I may have some catching up to do.  

Fast forward 12 years and I find myself chasing the light of photographer Jim Brandenburg at Blue Mounds State Park and his preserved 1000 acres of native tall grass prairie known as Touch the Sky.    

Touch the Sky Sunset.  1/20 @ F/7.1  ISO 100  23mm [2 bracket HDR]

Touch the Sky Daisies.  1/125 @ F/9  ISO 100  22mm

You read correctly, through his photography and in conjunction with the National Fish and Wildlife Service, they together have preserved 1000 acres of the native tall grass prairie where he spent his formative years developing a photographic eye.  Nothing like using one's success to give back to the land that has given so much.  Mostly roads, wind turbines, and farmlands now, much of the natural habitat has disappeared in the name of progress, but through proceeds from his Luverne gallery and non-profit Brandenburg Foundation, he has ensured this protected environment will be around for generations to come.      

Touch the Sky Prairie B/W.  1/125 @ F/6.3  ISO 100  16mm [Processed w/ Silver Efex Pro] 

It's strange to think it had taken me so long to photograph this area of Minnesota.  I suppose being "down home" for family gatherings limited my free time to get out and shoot.  This trip however, would be different;  I planned a few additional days before the 4th of July to explore an area I came to understand I knew very little of.

Setting up camp at Blue Mounds State Park that early summer evening with golden hour light warming my spirit, I came to realize the beauty of the prairie and quartzite rock permeating the park.  I would spend the next 3 days exploring and recording the same environment he helped preserve.  Feeling a responsibility to honor the landscape his efforts made possible, I set out shooting.  

Hiking around the prairie I couldn't help but notice the surroundings having a familiar feel, yet visually different than I ever imagined.  Like most people I gather, I never thought the prairie to have such a plethora of natural wonders. Yet, with wildflowers stretching above the tall native grasses as far as the eye can see, the landscape looked beautifully alien. I couldn't help but think how incredible it must've looked when the entire midwest was blanketed for hundreds of thousands of acres in such unique ecological diversity. 

Through the camera's eye I could see how the plants, insects, and wildlife symbiotically brought life to the prairie. Exploring the surrounding environment I instantly understood the importance of conserving this biological community.  It didn't take long to see how easily one can be seduced by it's vitality...and how easily it could shape a young photographer's style.  

Pipestone Falls.  1/20 @ F/10   ISO 400 24mm

During his career Jim Brandenburg has achieved the pinnacle of photography success.  As a National Geographic photographer he traveled the globe bringing attention to important geological social issues; as a conservationist he's helped preserve a thousand acres of a vanishing native environment. He's published books, received numerous awards & accolades from highly respected institutions, and even hobnobbed with royalty.  

He now divides time between his Ravenwood home/studio in the north woods of Minnesota, bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and hometown on the prairie where he recently started a video series in the same vein of his recent photo projects, in which he shoots a minute long video clip of nature in action for 365 days.  This project can be found at  He also has the forthcoming Spring edition to his seasonal journey projects, titled Awakeing.  For a visual of the 93 photographs taken for this book look no further than the April, 2016 edition of National Geographic Magazine, where he earned the title of most photographs published in an issue by a  photographer in the magazine's history...for the second time.  It would appear his career shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

I spent as much time as I could shooting and recording the surrounding park, prairie, and neighboring landscapes. I learned much about the history of the area and important role the prairie plays in it's continuing prosperity.  And yet, as my time on the prairie closed, I tore down camp realizing I truly only scratched the surface of the diversity the tall grass prairie has to offer.  I also felt a tremendous gratitude for the contributions and efforts of a photographer whose own achievements continually fuel and shape my creative spirit.  In the end I can only hope one day my photography will achieve the same level of capture and share the beauty of this natural world and one day be in a position to give back to that which has filled my life with such awe-inspiring purpose.


For more information regarding Jim Brandenburg and his work visit his website at:
For information regarding his philanthropic work on the tall grass prairie visit his foundation page at:
and find his Nature365 video series here: