The Watched Photographer To learn from globe-trotting Art Wolfe, the first thing you've got to do is keep up
by Jennifer Hattam
IT'S A WARM, CLEAR DAY in Washington's Olympic National Park. A few yards down the trail, a waterfall arcs below a wooden bridge, tumbling through mossy outgrowths and splashing onto rocky banks. It's a Kodak moment, and, indeed, dozens of visitors are peering over or around the bridge, cameras in hand. But photographer Art Wolfe doesn't look twice at the scene. "That holds no interest for me," he says. "I love the green in the water and the rocks upstream. I'm going to figure out how to make something happen there." Grabbing his tripod, he climbs over the low fence beside the trail and takes off, working his way upriver.
Wolfe moves quickly and shoots decisively, deleting less-than-perfect photos without a second thought, scarcely lingering in any spot. "Many nature photographers hang out in a blind and document the 12-month life cycle of a ground squirrel," he says. "I'd rather move through an environment and shoot. I'm never stationary for very long." Asked if he worked more slowly when he was less experienced, Wolfe laughs off the idea. "No, I have a short attention span!"
That trait fits with a peripatetic 30-year career that has taken the photographer from the Arctic Circle to the Australian outback, and from Tuscan fields to Namibian deserts--more than 70 countries in all. On the road eight or nine months of the year, Wolfe estimates that he's shot at least one million photos, many of which have found their way into his 67 books, as well as calendars, posters, and prints. He's currently filming a 13-episode travel show for public television (see "Tracking Wolfe," page 50) that will begin airing in late May.
Wolfe got his start as a professional photographer in the late 1970s, shortly after graduating from the University of Washington, with a story for a Northwest publication about the animals and landscape of the Olympic Peninsula. (Though he had studied painting, his artistic allegiances shifted after he picked up a camera to document his mountain-climbing excursions.) That led to more wildlife assignments, including a big break in 1980 with a National Geographic story on long-eared owls. An early relationship with the outdoor-gear retailer REI, which displayed and sold Wolfe's photos, helped make his work popular among adventurers and environmentalists.
Even couch potatoes can get a glimpse of the adventurous life of a nature photographer beginning in late May with the premiere of Travels to the Edge With Art Wolfe on public television. The 13-part series follows Wolfe around the world as he photographs rare wildlife, little-known peoples, and remote landscapes, offering insights into his artistic techniques and the environment and culture of each place.
In southern Alaska, Wolfe visits Katmai National Park and Preserve, home to one of the world's highest concentrations of brown bears. In Ethiopia, he photographs tribes; in Patagonia, he traverses a glacier. "So many people are afraid to travel these days," Wolfe says. "I want to show that there's a wonderful world out there."
Over the years, Wolfe has branched out to work on landscapes, portraits of indigenous peoples, and abstract images that blur the line between photography and painting, like the frozen sediment patterns he recently shot in Alaska. "You can form a sort of writer's block with the camera," he says. "Doing books on different themes forces me to go out and look at subjects through new eyes." What unites Wolfe's diverse body of work is a fastidiousness about light, composition, and color, which is also reflected in his appearance and minimalist home decor. "I tend to shoot very stylized, clean, simple concepts," he says. "Anything visually or mentally cluttered must be eliminated. I don't like a hair or a branch out of place."
If a scene isn't exactly what he wants, Wolfe has few qualms about making it that way. When he spots a cluster of tiny, bell-shaped white blossoms growing out of the roots of a tree, he clambers up the small hill to remove some dead branches that distract from the repeating shapes of the flowers he's trying to isolate in the shot. In his recent travels, Wolfe has been taking this idea further, posing people to create patterns inspired by their garments, surroundings, and lifestyles--an artistic interpretation of cultures rather than a traditional documentation of them.
For one photo, Town Hall Meeting, Wolfe approached a group of chatting women in India's Thar Desert--"During the monsoons, they sit around and talk about how lazy their men are," he says--and gathered them in a seated circle, with their hands clasped around their legs. Arranged around a white pattern painted on the ground, their pink toenails, bejeweled wrists, and colorful saris evoke the petals of a flower or rays of the sun. For The Consultation, taken in Nepal, he assembled a group of Buddhist monks and photographed them from above, their yellow headdresses looking like buds about to bloom from a sea of red robes. "I know this will be radical for some people to get their brains around," Wolfe says, "but I haven't had too much controversy lately--let's just stir up the pot."
WOLFE LAST SPARKED A FUROR in 1994 with the release of his book Migrations, in which he openly acknowledged digitally altering many of the images to enhance the patterns created by groups of animals. Most contentious was the cover, a photograph of zebras in which some individual creatures had been duplicated to fill in the herd. Though the book was a success, it angered some people who felt that wildlife photography should be a literal representation of what occurs in nature.
Published the same year as Time's infamous cover of a digitally darkened O. J. Simpson mug shot, Migrations fueled the public's fears about the impact of the new technology. "When [people] figure out what's going on, they feel like they've been deceived," photographer Galen Rowell told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "They have trouble looking at a photograph the same way again."