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Ely photographer wins National Geographic's Lifetime Achievement Award

Luverne, Minnesota, native Jim Brandenburg has captured stunning images worldwide.

Jim Brandenburg
Jim Brandenburg, of Ely, has won the Lifetime Achievement Award from National Geographic for his worldwide images of nature and wildlife.
Contributed / Judy Brandenburg

ELY — Minnesota native Jim Brandenburg, the Ely-based photographer who has traveled the world to capture stunning images of nature and wildlife, has won National Geographic's Lifetime Achievement Award.

The award was presented recently by the Photo Society, composed of 200 of the magazine’s photographers.

“I have been so very fortunate over the years to have received some precious and treasured awards around the world, but this one is unique for me because it is from my peers — some of the finest photographic talent in the world,” Brandenburg, 77, said in a statement announcing the honor.

LUVERNE, Minn. — Jim Brandenburg is turning himself this way and that, peering beneath a ledge of purplish Sioux quartzite.

Only five other National Geographic photographers have received the award over the years.

Brandenburg last contributed to the magazine in 2016 with his mega photo essay “93 Days of Spring.” He has been part of the National Geographic family for some 50 years.


Brandenburg was unable to attend the award ceremony in Washington last month because he was in Europe where he is working on two movie projects.

“They are the largest and most complex of my career,” Brandenburg noted of the films.

One project is a feature film about Brandenburg’s life in nature, produced by a prominent Cannes award-winning production company in Paris. The other is a large-screen film Brandenburg is producing in Italy — on the natural secrets of the Dolomite Mountains — with a crew from the United Kingdom.

The film biography covers “mainly living in the northwoods, BWCAW landscape and the animals I've encountered near my home, especially wolves,” Brandenburg told the News Tribune Monday. The film also includes "the southwestern Minnesota prairie, where I came from ... especially our Touch the Sky tallgrass prairie preserve."

loons on Moose Lake ONE TIME USE ONLY
A photo from the National Geographic story "A Northwoods Journal" and the Jim Brandenburg book "Chased by the Light." "I made 90 photographs, no extras, every day for the 90 days of autumn," he told the News Tribune. "This shot is on Day 10. I came across a young loon and its parent on Moose Lake in the BWCAW not far from my home. The young loon was completely wrapped up in fishing line and was not able to dive or fly. I caught and unwrapped the bird. As I released it from my canoe, it swam off a little and and flapped its wings. I always like to think it was a thank-you gesture — at least in my mind. The story in the magazine is the most number of photographs ever run in the magazine's 135-year history and the bestselling book was my most successful in my career."
Contributed / Jim Brandenburg

Brandenburg is perhaps best known for his photographs of wolves in Minnesota and the Arctic.

Brandenburg was born and raised in Luverne, Minnesota, among the region’s farms and prairies. After studying at Worthington Community College, he went on to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he majored in art history while working for 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 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.

Brandenburg returned to Worthington and began working as a photojournalist for the Worthington Daily Globe . He also began submitting work to the National Geographic Society as a freelance photographer, and in 1978, he became a contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine.


He has twice been named Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association.

In 2010, four of his wildlife photos were included among the top 40 nature photographs of all time by the International League of Conservation Photographers. The collection includes some of Brandenburg's best-loved photos: a white wolf leaping between ice floes in the Canadian Arctic, a gray wolf peering among trees in northern Minnesota, an oryx on a sand dune in Namibia, and bison in Minnesota's Blue Mounds State Park.

Four photographs are among the Top 40 Nature Photographs in the history of photography.

Brandenburg also 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 also won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.

Brandenburg said he's also working on several books "trying to get the courage to wrap them up and publish them — retrospective types of subjects."

“I am now back in a snowy Minnesota feeling extremely honored and a bit breathless contemplating it all,” Brandenburg added on his latest award. “I am especially appreciative and beyond grateful for all the family and friends that helped pave the way. This is not possible without that kind of support.”

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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