Five Minutes with Art Wolfe

September 22, 2010

Imagine a remote, windswept corner of the earth, and all that might inhabit that wild patch of land, and odds are that Art Wolfe’s lens has already been there to capture it.

A Pacific Northwest native, acclaimed nature photographer Wolfe is the host of the popular OPB program, Travels to the Edge. And in his 30-year career, he has snapped more than a million pictures and authored dozens of top-selling wildlife photography books, cataloging unforgettable images of endangered species, pristine wilderness, and little-understood cultures.

Next month, Wolfe trains his lens on the Rose City when he comes to town for a lecture at the Portland Art Museum on October 2. In between shoots, the globetrotting shutterbug took some time out to discuss where the new season of his show might take him, what it’s like to be chased by a rhino, and how it feels to lose 600 rolls of film.

For the first two seasons of Travels to the Edge, you traveled to such far-flung locales as South Georgia Island, Mongolia, and the Sahara. How do you pick the locations for the show, and what are some places where we might expect to see you during Season 3?

I generally select locations for Travels to the Edge based on trips I have previously done. In my 30-plus years of professional traveling I have been to a lot of extraordinary places, but not all are suitable for a compelling TV program. A location must have a great landscape, cultures, or wildlife. Some of the locations I would like to take the show to are the mountains of New Guinea, the high Tibetan Plateau, southern China and the Hilltribes; also the rainforests of Panama and highlight the San Blas Indians who live on the islands off the coast, and Tasmania, Brazil, Botswana. I wish I could do them all.

You were born in Seattle and still live there today. And you have said that the only place that has influenced your work more than the Himalayas is the Pacific Northwest. How has living in this part of the country shaped what you do as an artist?

I grew up on the shores of the Puget Sound always looking west toward the water and the mountains beyond. Living in the northwestern corner of the country I always feel this drive to discover what is across the water—I guess it is the draw toward the unknown. At an early age I was a student of the natural beauty of the Northwest. I remember camping as a boy, and as I grew older, I started climbing peaks, and then eventually leading climbs in the Cascades and the Olympics. This naturally led me to the mountains of Alaska and then on to the Himalayas. A two-hour drive from Seattle can land you in the high plains steppe of eastern Washington, or the old growth forests and the ocean. There is so much to record as an artist. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise—I don’t think I had a chance in my choice of professions given my interests and the world I grew up in.

A pair of noted Oregon landscape photographers, the late Terry Toedtemeier and Ron Cronin, would occasionally team up on shoots, partly because they worked in remote locations and it was safer to do so, and partly because they enjoyed the company. Explain why photography is a solitary pursuit for you, or why you like having company around.

I almost always travel with one or two companions. For me the sharing of the experience with someone else is very important. I have never been the prototypically solitary artist—I always like to engage with someone and to share the joys and miseries of travel. From safety point of view it also makes total sense. I’m not particularly worried about other people, but to suffer injury like a twisted joint or broken bone in the backcountry alone could be life-threatening. But mostly I enjoy sharing experiences when I travel with somebody.

For a look at Art Wolfe’s Pacific Northwest shots, view the slideshow below.

Portland Monthly – Images by Art Wolfe

One of your most famous books, Migrations, which was released in the 1990s at the cusp of the digital age, caused a controversy among fellow nature photographers because some of the images in the book, including the cover, had been digitally altered. In a nutshell, the beef was that there was no place for such techniques in photography depicting the natural world; the fact that the book made clear reference to the fact that such techniques were used did little to quiet the criticism. More than a decade later, the topic of digitally altered photos is still of intense interest to many people. How do you feel the debate on this issue has evolved, and is there a place where you draw the line when it comes to altering photos?

Over 15 years after the publication of Migrations, I remain ideologically where I did when I published the book: if it is a book based on art for the sake of art, I find no compelling reason not to use this fantastic advancement of the photographic art to its utmost. If, on the other hand, I am illustrating a textbook or a natural history article, there is no place for digital alteration. While I understand where my critics are coming from, I do view them as looking through a very narrow window.

You sit on the advisory board for groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society and Nature’s Best Foundation, and you are outspoken when it comes to protecting the environment. Are there places here in the Northwest that you feel are facing the most pressure?

Quite simply, we are down to the last 10 percent of old growth forests and runoff into the Puget Sound is poisoning it. We understand the critical role of forests and trees and the impacts of climate change and of course, the forests and wild lands provide critical habitat for wildlife, such as the gray wolf, which is making a comeback into northeastern Washington. As for the Puget Sound, at first glance it looks likes a fairly clean body of water. But just below the surface there are a number of ills, one of which is the constant bombardment by chemicals in simple storm drain runoff. We have done a fairly effective job of cleaning up industry, but just improving infrastructure could do so much in cleaning up the Sound.

On a more lighthearted note, earlier this year, as an April Fool’s joke, you posted some photos of people dressed as Bigfoot on your blog. It made me curious: during all of your travels, have you ever documented or witnessed something that defied rational explanation? If so, what did you see?

Yes, I have photographed things which have clearly stunned me. While working on Travels to the Edge, I was filming voodoo culture in Benin. I witnessed a man who jumped into a fire and remained there for well on two minutes. He got up and there was no evidence on his skin or his clothing that he had even been in licking flames. I have watched people walking across hot coals, with a speed that I think I could have done myself, but this instance astounded me. I do not understand why this man did not come away with severe burns.

You travel to some remote, and potentially dangerous, places to photograph. When and where did you have your most frightening experience on a shoot?

When shooting for my book The Living Wild, I was traveling in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park. My assistant and I were walking into a forest on foot when a mother rhino and her nearly full-grown calf attacked. Had it not been for one kapok tree with buttress roots I would not be here doing this interview. For five minutes the rhinos gored wildly at the tree trying to get at us and we huddled within the protective buttresses only inches from their fury. Thankfully they lost interest and ran away as did we. Poaching is common in many national parks worldwide and the rhinos, as well as other animals like the sloth bear, have become more aggressive in their behavior toward humans.

On a related note, what’s the most treasured piece of equipment that you’ve lost while out on a shoot? How’d you lose it?

The most catastrophic loss I’ve ever had was when my car was broken into in San Francisco years ago. Cameras, lenses, tripods, [and money] can be replaced but not the 600 rolls of exposed film I had just shot in the previous month. Those moments can never be reproduced. It was devastating.

I’m often impressed at the weight of gear that photographers carry while hiking out in rugged country. How much gear do you typically trek around with, and what kind of support crew do you typically have?

People are actually amazed that I carry my own gear while on a shoot. Along with a Canon camera body I typically carry a 70-200mm zoom lens, a 16-35mm wide angle, some extension tubes, a cable release, small packets of 16 gigabyte cards and wipes, a tripod, a bottle of water and a sandwich. You don’t need to have a tremendous amount of gear, but it’s more effective to take a very few items that you really know how to use. With the zoom lenses, the quality and variety allow me to shoot a great variety of subjects. I can simply walk closer or stay farther away to accomplish what I could with more specialized lenses.

What are a couple of pieces of outdoor gear—not necessarily photography equipment—that you’re never without? Why?

Sometimes I take along a French press and a bag of coffee, flashlight, gummi bears. I don’t have a lot of fancy little gadgets. I am a minimalist when it comes to travel.

I’m a point-and-click camera guy. Assuming that I’m using a camera of reasonable quality, what are some simple things that I can do to improve the shots I take of the outdoors?

One can always upgrade to sharper lenses and start the spiral into ever more powerful and expensive gear. However, I always tell people to really analyze the situation, the landscape, they are in. This is why I take instruction very seriously—it is the technique that will get you a good shot rather than the camera. I teach really solid technique, but more importantly, I teach people how to really boil down the subject before them into very clear compositions. Clean compositions are analogous to simple, yet profound, statements.

If you were allowed only one more chance to photograph landscapes in Oregon, to what one location would you decide to go?

I would have to say that I am drawn most to the northeastern corner of the state. I love the Snake River country to the east of Enterprise. When I am here I feel like I am in a very remote part of the country.

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