Photographer of the Month Interview: Art Wolfe

Featured Photographer, August 2011:   Art Wolfe

This month, our featured guest is Art Wolfe.

We want to thank Art for sharing his work and story with us, and so generously answering our questions! Please visit his site links to see more of his extraordinary work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: Your background and degrees are in fine art; was photography the first medium of choice for you?

Definitely painting and drawing were my first choices. When I was a young kid I started off with crayons and pencils and eventually worked in watercolors. In fact, I painted all the way through my college years. It wasn't until I got into high school that I got my first camera, a little Brownie Fiesta. When I graduated high school and started to get into mountaineering, cameras became much more of a useful medium than what I thought was going to be my career. A couple years into college my allegiance shifted from painting to photography simply because that medium suited my temperament and speed much better. I'm very hyperactive. I love creating original compositions and it was far easier to do that in photography, than by sitting down and drawing largely from my imagination to create compositions in painting.

:: What got you started in photography? Was it always landscape for you, or did you do any product photography, portraits or wedding work?

My start in photography was documenting the hikes and climbs I was doing. I used it as a medium to share with friends that weren't on those excursions--what it was like to be in the mountains, up on the glaciers on top of Mount Rainier. Then it went from being purely documentation to being art. The more I did the more I got hooked into photography and I started to apply what I was learning as a painting major at the University of Washington. I started to make comparisons and contrasts of painting and photography. That's when I started to use my knowledge of composition to aid my photography and I started getting noticed.

I was always fairly clear with what I wanted to do with photography, basically landscapes, wildlife and nature. That was it for me. Hiking and climbing was part of that. I wanted to do presentations of the landscape and the people in it. I didn't really go for straight sports, but putting people in my landscapes was a nice way to connect people to the landscapes. Wildlife was always of interest from my earliest days playing in the forests. I always knew the birds and mammals that I was looking at. Starting at a very early age I felt comfortable getting close to the animals. You know everyone is made up of their past history and interests and I'm a perfect example of that. I bring to photography a strong knowledge of natural history, of animal behavior, and that all enables my photography to proceed forward.

:: How does having parents that were commercial artists help to shape you as an artist, or your appreciation for art?

Even though my parents were photographers, they never sat me down and taught me anything about photography, but I was familiar with cameras because they were around. My dad had a black and white dark room; I tried it once and was not interested in working in the dark room. My mom also enrolled in correspondence classes in drawing and she had oils and canvases around and that definitely influenced my drawing and painting.

Some of my earliest memories are when she would be learning illustration I would also be drawing and doodling. It's obvious that influenced me. My dad gave me one of his old Speed Graphics, and once I got that camera I took it to the tops of mountains and started shooting four by five black and whites. That obviously also had a strong bearing on my career.

:: Can you describe a bit of the process you went through in your early years as a photographer to get noticed? Did you enter competitions? How did you start building your portfolio?

I started entering regional art fairs and in competitions. I was very aggressive in approaching outdoor gear stores like REI and Eddie Bauer and The North Face. There weren't a lot of galleries that I knew of and yet I knew of these climbing and hiking stores. It didn't take much convincing to allow me to have a little space on the walls; behind a rack of jackets there would be an Art Wolfe photograph.

It was like a disease, I started spreading out through the store, and eventually got my own little space that led to a more formal gallery. I think it was an early confidence that I could sell work, and the managers of those stores allowed me to have that chance. I had started selling paintings when I was in my early teens to teachers and friends of my dad. I would sell water color paintings and make money from it and use that money to buy more paper and paint. Having that early success has built self esteem and confidence which played out in getting my work into the retail stores around Seattle.

:: Who influenced you in the early years of photography? And, are there photographers out there that you see as taking the torch and helping to push landscape photography into the future?

People that influenced me early on were fellow hikers and climbers. Though I never worked for Boeing, I was included in the Boeing camera club because a lot of the same people were involved in hiking. I absorbed what they were doing. We would have little competitions, and I think we all drove each other forward in the quality of our work. We learn from example and learn from each other. None of those people, by the way, were known photographers, they were just avid enthusiasts. I also was galvanized by an exhibit I saw of Johsel Namkung's work at the Seattle Art Museum in the late 1970s.

In terms of young people and passing the torch, I believe that a handful of my generation of photographers are still driving the field forward. While I'm still very viable as a creative photographer; I've never stayed in one genre. I think the young photographers, by in large, are still mimicking what we did twenty years ago. They have better cameras now, but they are still following our lead. There are new trends that are created through Lightroom and Photoshop and yet I think the photographers of my generation are still out there staying on the crest of the wave moving forward. At least the most successful ones are. None of us have stayed in the genre that we started in 30 years ago. All of our work is vastly different than in the early days.

:: What was the first trip you took for photography that really helped you develop the appreciation, and ultimately passion, for wildlife and landscape photography?

The year 1980 was a very active year for me. I went on a trip in early September from London to Greece with three friends and all along the way I think photography was the most important thing on that trip. I saw France through the lens of a camera- and Greece and Italy. Yet none of those photos have really lasted, none were so great that I could use them today. But I knew there was a switch over from just traveling and using the camera as something I had with me, to the reason why I was traveling.

Later on that year, I went on a climb of Kilimanjaro and out into the Serengeti. The taking of pictures was the reason why I wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It wasn't because I had this burning desire to stand on top of the highest mountain in Africa; it was about documenting the journey. I later went out into the Serengeti, and I know how hard I worked on photographing the animals, all of which would not survive in my modern archive. They simply weren't good enough. But the spark had been lit.

:: You got your start with film photography; what early cameras did you use?

I can remember starting out with a Brownie Fiesta, which was just a ridiculous little plastic camera, but I thought it was gold back then. Then my parents gave me a Konica camera for Christmas in the late 60s or early 70s. There were no instructions. I can remember to this day looking through my first box of processed slide film, and seeing all the way to the bottom of the box and there was nothing on them. They were all over exposed so greatly that collectively you could look through all of the exposures!

The next box of film was just the opposite- they were all black. I started to clue in that there was a relationship to the numbers on the lens and the shutter speeds. I just learned from trial and error, and to this day have not taken a photo class from anybody and I'm not particularly fond of reading instructions. My father gave me a Speed Graphic and around the same time I think I got a Nikkormat. I used both of those cameras for a long time, but a number of years later I got seriously into photographing birds and I switched over to a Canon system and a bigger lens.

At one time I had an 800mm Canon lens and I started shooting as many animals as I could. I kept with that for about 10 years and then I switched over to Nikon, then back to Canon. Cameras and brands were something that was important, but I'm not too brand specific. I am much more interested in the subject I am photographing than the camera that I am taking the picture with. Canon just happens to have the best equipment for my style of shooting.

:: What was your first digital camera, and why did you switch from film?

I was on a trip to Antarctica in 2004 and at that point I had not even tried digital. I had heard from my friends that digital was on par with film. Since I was shooting Canon, I got a 1DS. For Antarctica, I had my film camera and 500 rolls of film and I had this one comparable digital camera. On the boat crossing the Drake Passage I took the camera out of the box. It was pouring rain, and water droplets had beaded up on this steel railing and I took a macro shot. I went back down to my room and loaded it onto my computer, which was a workflow that I had never tried before, and within minutes of taking the picture it shows up on my computer screen. And I looked at it; I looked at the quality of the first digital picture I ever took, and that was the end of film. I have not taken one single exposure of slides since that moment.

The rest of the trip to Antarctica was all devoted to digital, and 500 rolls of film came back unexposed. I sold all the film and completely embraced digital that fast and that abruptly. The reason I was so enraptured with digital from the get go was that I could verify what I was shooting. That is a component of photography that was missing in slide days. Consequently, I would be shooting multiple exposures of the same subject. Out of insecurity, on really great subjects I would shoot 2 or 3 rolls of almost identical exposures.

With digital my entire workflow changed in a nanosecond. I would take one or two exposures, verify that I got it, and move on. I am getting far greater range of subjects in the same amount of time I would have exposing the same film composition. Also, when I am getting shots that look good to me, it makes me more confident that I am on a roll and therefore I embrace taking pictures even more enthusiastically.

:: What do you feel the differences are between film and digital in the creative portion of creating a photograph? Does the digital help or hurt the end result?

I still encounter people that are locked to the way that film 'has a feel to it', and it's not my role to try and convince them otherwise. I can say that the people who are absolute craftsmen at shooting with film; if they have found something that they really love and are convinced that this is the best of the best then great! go for it!

For me, I think you can take a digital format and shape it to look like any of the films that you would have shot before. It is also unquestionable that the ability to shoot within a single flash card various ISOs is incredibly important, especially in the world of wildlife and nature. You need to be able to speed up the exposure with the changing light. That is a critical aspect about the way I shoot today. Historically you put a roll of film in and you are locked in to an ISO. Now I can go from ISO 100 to 800 seamlessly to adjust to the given light levels.

:: I read that you spend a lot of time pre-visualizing images. Can you talk about that process some, and why it's important to your photography?

Pre-visualizing an image is one aspect to my photography. A lot of what I shoot is spontaneously reacting to an unfolding, unforeseen circumstance. I love those candid moments and the adrenaline rush of taking pictures of unexpected subjects. I also embrace and love the concept creation that I marry to my days of being a painter. You have an idea of a shot, and you make the shot happen. I love the rewards of being totally in control of a situation. I clearly look at those as two different genres of photography. With one I fell like I am wearing the shoes of an artist and the other one a journalist, and I don't see them as interfering with one another. I see them as two completely different aspects of two different genres of photography. It's a fool's game to try and ascribe a percentage, but clearly most of my shooting is on the run and reacting to unfolding situations.

If I go to the Himalayas I know that I am also going to photograph monasteries and monks and I might come up with an idea of a way of showing those monks within the context of their monastery. So part of my energy and time will be devoted to coming up with a completely new way of shooting a subject I have probably shot two or three times before. I think that's a good thing. I love shooting concepts that have had some foresight and forethought to it because if I simply go into a place with no preplanning or ideas, I am likely to come away with less valid unique photos. So it's a little bit of both.

:: Given that you're gone a good portion of each year, how do you handle your workflow? Do you spend a portion of each adventure/trip post-processing? Do you have people who help with the post-processing now? How involved are you with the finished product?

I am pragmatic first and foremost and I run a business with seven individuals. I think part of my success in the past is my ability to let go of certain aspects of projects. I have the confidence that the people that work with me honor my mission. I let people do a lot of the things that perhaps other photographers would want to keep close to the vest. In other words, post processing and final tweaking of an image is something that I've let go of. Simply because I don't know the intricacies and subtleties as well as other people might. So I hire those people to do that, but they also know my sensibilities and they honor that. It's a symbiotic relationship between all of us.

In terms of a daily shoot, I'll go out and shoot perhaps forty photos in a given day or as many as 3000! Regardless, by the end of that day, when I come back to my tent or hotel room or wherever I may be, I download onto the computer and write to hard drives for back-up. Then I will look at the day's shoot before I go to bed. When traveling I can't fall behind so I'm current with what I've shot; I've reformatted the cards and I'm ready to go the next day.

:: You do a lot of work with different environmental agencies. Can you pick one or two that you want to talk about, how you got involved with them, and why they are important to our society and photography?

I look at organizations that are devoted to the health of the planet as valid ones to support. That is regardless whether it is an organization that only looks at health issues or habitat protection. I think that they are all good and it is hard to identify one that's any more important than the others. When they come our way we usually will support them in one degree or the other. Certainly ones that address habitat destruction get my nod faster than anything else because of the speed with which habitats and environments are destroyed. Everything's connected on this planet. What's happening on Borneo affects people in other parts of the world. If you are a living, breathing, thinking person on this earth, it's an obligation.

Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, Earth Justice and Rainforest Alliance are all organizations that we've worked with in the past; but our list is very, very long!

:: How would you describe conservation photography, and what made you get involved?

Conservation photography is basically people that are photographing and documenting the natural world. I would extend that definition into traditional cultures as well. But it's basically photographing the natural world, whether it's the most pristine landscapes or destruction of a habitat. It is a reminder to people what is at risk. I have certainly concentrated over the last fifteen years on documenting a lot of remote traditional peoples, knowing full well that those peoples and their culture and their languages are rapidly disappearing. I'm on a self imposed mission, whenever I can, to document these cultures, and showing how they live knowing full well that they may be the visual record of something that no longer exists in the future.

:: How did the Travels to the Edge series come to exist? Was it the natural progression from your American Photo Safari show or was the vision totally different (more relative to the increase in digital camera sales and use)?

Travels to the Edge was a response to the September 11th attacks aftermath, when for a few years, people only traveled to "safe" places like Paris and London. I wanted to teach people about the faces and places on this planet. Rather than demonize people that you don't know, know that you have more in common with them than not. It's about educating and contributing what I could.

I love the aspect of photography that it actually inspires and educates, and that is what I wanted Travels to the Edge to do. I wanted to inspire people; educate them about this planet - to make them care about the people that they will likely never meet. When you look at the earth from space it's a tiny colorful globe in a sea of black, and that's the only one in the foreseeable future that we can occupy. So I look as all the people on earth as being connected, in a positive way, regardless of religion and location

Travels to the Edge was also a way of extending the reach of the books I had worked on and a way to further the reach of some of the terrific organizations which have supported them. I have always worked on books that first and foremost appeal to me as a subject regardless of commercial appeal. Rarely have I calculate the economic benefits of a book, in fact if I did, I probably would never have done a book to begin with.

:: Out of all your world travels, which place(s) captivated you the most, or were the most challenging? Were there any locations that left you a bit disappointed?

I think every place that I've traveled I found a great story. I don't think that I have ever looked back at a place and thought 'God, that is a place I never want to go back to'. Why I've traveled for 30 years almost non-stop is that I'm enthusiastic about every place that I go to. I'm in my late 50s and I would be less than honest if I said I didn't enjoy floating around Glacier Bay in a luxurious yacht eating caviar omelets while photographing calving icebergs or orca whales. That doesn't go missing on this old goat!

Certainly camping out in the Sahara and crossing landscapes at 110 degrees is less comfortable, but really you let go of all those kind of things, and you only retain the good memories of every location. I truly say that because that is the way I'm wired. I don't remember any of the hardships; I only remember the great things. Consequently, I love to travel and I would love to go back to any location again and again and again.

Art Wolfe

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