Creating Art with a Camera – Interview with Nature and Cultural Photographer Art Wolfe
Having published almost 90 books and videos teaching photography technique, his images on two U.S. Postage stamps, and hosted his own television series, renowned photographer, Art Wolfe has quite a few accomplishments under his belt in an illustrious career that has spanned over three decades. He has worked on every continent and hundreds of locations, won countless awards and his work can be seen in publications around the world. Art’s mission is multi-faceted: art, wildlife advocacy, and journalism.
Art took the time from his extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions for us and graciously shares some of his rich knowledge and experiences.
Can you give us a brief introductory of who you are as a photographer?
I am a artist first and foremost. I am not a photojournalist trying to record the world exactly as I see it, rather it is my goal to create art with the camera. I draw my inspiration not only from the usual photographers, Ansel Adams, Ernst Haas, and Elliot Porter, but more so from classic and contemporary painters from Monet and Van Gogh to Pollack and Toby. While I didn’t initially grasp the beauty in truly abstract art forms when I was studying art at the University of Washington, as I have grown and matured as an artist I find myself gravitating more and more towards abstract compositions.
I love it when I can find an unusual composition in ordinary places: a scene painted in the grit and dirt on snow scalloped from the sun; patterns and line in the random evolution of a rusting railroad car. I enjoy working with reflections on the water allowing the movement of the water and varying shutter speeds to paint with the colors and lines of the reflected objects.
How did you get started in photography?
Both of my parents were photographers, so it was natural that I never saw myself as a photographer when I grew up, certainly not a wedding photographer as they had been. I was a painter and I began carrying a camera with me on hikes and adventures only to record the scene. Later, I would paint the landscape from a print rather than relying on my memory alone or carrying my supplies up into the mountains. Even when I painted I liked to work fast; I would paint in watercolors simply because they dried so much faster than oil paints.
It wasn’t long before I began to realize that with a camera I could work even faster yet and the print itself could be the outcome, the final artistic statement. It wasn’t long before the paints were put into a cupboard in my early 20s and the camera and film became my brush and palette from that point onward. Though I had already undertaken several photography assignments such as cataloging the native animal species in the Olympic Peninsula for a government project, as well as photographing Native American baskets for my first book project, it was in 1984 when I joined the Ultima Thule Everest expedition (the first American expedition to be allowed in through Tibet) that I felt as though I’d really made a name for myself as a photographer.
You shoot amazing wildlife photography. But I really love the Human Canvas project. Can you tell me a little more about that project?
I got my start shooting wildlife in the Pacific Northwest and the beautiful landscapes of the region. My unquenchable zeal for adventure lead me overseas where I was exposed to cultures in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and more. On those journeys I realized art was everywhere, a constant found in all cultures around the world. Where people didn’t have walls to hang art, they painted it directly on the landscape, upon the rocks and caves and in many cases turning to their own bodies as a canvas to work from adorning themselves in pigments and clay, adding elements to their hair, piercings and scarification all to set themselves apart as living works of art.
Here the seeds were planted in my mind for what someday would evolve into my work titled “Human Canvas;” it would be 20 years before I was able to fully develop the idea and carry it out. You’ll find strong direct ties back to my early work with tribes in Africa, I even returned to the Omo River valley in Ethiopia specifically for the book photographing the descendants of the original tribespeople I had photographed in the early 1990s. I also drew upon my work with animals and camouflage as seen in my book “Vanishing Act” allowing my subjects to blend in and get lost in the painted backgrounds.
Lastly, you’ll also find influences and an homage to some of my favorite painters such as Pollack, Escher and Toby. Working on the Human Canvas allowed me to get back to my roots as a painter spending weeks painting the backdrops over which I would pose the models and then even painting the people themselves on the day of the shoot. It made for very long days shooting in a studio and required pulling in favors from friends and colleagues alike with as many as two dozen models at once and sixteen hour days to pull it off.
In addition to that, I see you have a TV show. What is the most exotic place you’ve been to and the most amazing subject you’ve shot?
“Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge” has been airing worldwide for several years now. I have traveled to every continent multiple times over in my career, photographing in remote corners looking for the rare and unusual, the beautiful and endangered. One of my favorite places to travel has to be South Georgia Island. The animals see very few people and thus don’t harbor a fear of humans, allowing for wonderful encounters with the wildlife. For me the most amazing subjects I have photographed are those which simply cannot be replicated today.
The 1980s and 90s were not as filled with photographers the world over as it is today, thus I have in my archives treasured images depicting scenes, particularly of indigenous cultures, which simply no longer exist today. I was very fortunate to be not only in the right place but graced with amazing access to these people: the Yanomami of Venezuela, the Upper Xingu Indians of Brazil, and the Karo of Ethiopia. These are the images I am most proud of.
Tell me a little about what you’re currently working on
The past several years have found me traveling more often, if that’s possible, spending more time on the road and in the field than ever before. The reason? I have been shooting for my latest book project “Earth Is My Witness.” To know me is to know I am a lover of books, my own library in my home is a testament to that fact, along with close to 90 books I have published in my career.
“Witness” will be my magnum opus, a collection of the best images of my career spanning the world and all disciplines from culture and landscape to abstract and wildlife photography. The equipment available today is allowing me to photograph subjects in ways I never could have dreamed of in the days of film. Where ISO 800 was considered really fast in the 80s and 90s, today it is merely a suggestion.
In the book, you’ll find images of jaguars photographed handheld from a small boat floating down a river in the Brazilian Pantanal. You’ll see river dolphins and humpback whales photographed underwater. Tack sharp images of bears charging salmon in a river in Alaska where every droplet of water is frozen in time. It has been an exhausting and extremely rewarding journey, this will be one of my best and largest books I have ever undertaken and I’m very excited to see it come out around October 2014. (Pre-order it here).
You conduct a lot of workshops. How did you started, what are your workshops like, and what do you want your students to get out of them?
When I was at the University of Washington I majored in Art and Art Education—my original intent was to teach art. I conduct different workshops for different experiences, from backcountry adventures to one-day lectures, and two-to-three day field workshops. I have always loved teaching and I teach from the same inspiration that guides my own work: art history, art appreciation, graphic design and fundamental elements of drawing.
There is a reason certain paintings have stood the test of time over the centuries, why we remember individual artists today and their contribution to the art world is so significant while other artists of that time have been long forgotten. In my seminars and workshops, I work with people to begin to see those same artistic elements of line, pattern and shape in the natural world around us. How can you find the soft palette of a Monet in the natural world? Look to movement, gentle breezes in the flowers and use that movement in the composition. Look for patterns in groups of animals that would suggest the patterns of an Escher as one animal morphs into another across the composition. I teach people to find inspiration in other art forms, not just other photographers.
Ultimately my goal is to get students to look at the world a little differently: to think in terms of positive and negative space just as an artist with a brush would; to use line and pattern with intention choosing what and how much goes into the composition; to create art and push photography forward as an art form. My two most recent instructional titles are 2013’s “The New Art of Photographing Nature” and “The Art of the Photograph.”
What kind of gear do you shoot with?
- Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fish Eye
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro
- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM
- Canon EF 24-105mm Macro f/4L IS USM
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM
- Canon EF 200-400mm 1.4 L IS USM Extender 1.4x
San Disk CF cards
- Western Digital My passport portable hard drive 2 TB
- Gitzo GT3541XLS Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Kirk ball head
- Canon TC-80N3 Intervelometer
- Singh-Ray neutral density filters
- B+W Circular Polarizer
- MacBook Pro
Do you have any advice for a new photographer starting out?
If photography is your passion, feed it. Just don’t focus on making tons of money and making it your sole income. The path I took to where I am today is not one to replicate as those were different times 30-40 years ago and the market for photography has changed dramatically and will continue to change. I don’t only shoot images I believe I can sell, I shoot what interests me, what fuels my soul and nurture my passion as an artist and this has continued to evolve and change over the years. I have always operated this way and always will; otherwise, I would have quit shooting decades ago and moved on to something that could sustain my interest and passion.
Take classes, there are a lot of different approaches and styles to learn from. However don’t focus solely on photography courses, take classes in art history and art appreciation, take some fundamental drawing classes, take a course on sculpture or at the very least pour over some books on the subject. The lessons you learn from other art disciplines and what makes up a timeless painting will directly impact and improve your work as a photographer far quicker than just studying the images of other photographers.
Lastly if you are just starting out buy the best lenses you can afford and a cheaper camera back – why? Excellent quality lenses will last a decade or more if taken well care of whereas the digital camera back you buy today will be obsolete in 2 years and you’ll be back buying another.
CREDITS: All photographs by Art Wolfe are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.