Art Wolfe is adamant about two things: The environment should be high on everyone's priority list, and what he does with a camera is art - not accident. These two compatible ideas form the structure of Wolfe's upcoming book on some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes on the planet.
The book, "Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky" - which takes its name from an ancient Greek phrase coined when the world was thought to be flat - was meticulously shot in desert, forest, mountain, ocean and polar sites over nine years, its photos precisely paired according to color, subject, texture and format. Due out this September, the exactingly produced 240-page book will be Wolfe's 54th, and the third from his publishing arm, Wildlands Press.
Almost every book Wolfe has published in the past eight years has taken strong positions on environmental issues. "It's no longer enough, in my own mind, to simply do a pretty book," Wolfe says on a rare day when he's in his First Avenue studio in Seattle. "We want to do a bigger book than a publisher would normally do. We can produce a much grander, highbrow book that also helps the health of the planet."
"Edge of the Earth," he explains, asks the question, "What if we wound up only having wild areas parceled into small regions?" The thought came to him one day as he was flying into Seattle over Mount Rainier. He looked down at the crisp, square-shaped boundaries of the national park, noting its postage-stamp impression, with the surrounding areas logged right up to its edges. "Just because these places are remote doesn't mean they're protected," he says. "We've got to make a much greater effort on the world scale to preserve wild areas."
Wolfe thinks the collective efforts of photographers, writers, painters and others are making the average citizen more aware that the far reaches of the world are still wild and worth preserving. "If you turn on the news, you see such a narrow window of everything," he says. "If you think of Israel, you think of Tel Aviv and the latest bus bombing, and yet there are wolves that live in Israel; there are leopards in the mountains." Our perceptions of India are largely of the crowded streets of Calcutta, he adds, "yet there are tigers roaming the forest. There's a lot more out there than you think."
Efforts to raise awareness are having an effect, Wolfe says. "It's working. It's making a difference. Somewhere around 75 percent of Americans now identify the environment as a very important issue for them. That was not true 10 or 20 years ago."
Art for Art's sake
Each of the 150 color photos in "Edge of the Earth" has been scanned carefully for the specific press it will be printed on at Graphic Arts Center in Portland, Ore. "In the previous books I've produced, we've never had such care taken in the prep process," Wolfe says. Featuring text by renowned environmental writer Art Davidson, the book will be printed with ecologically sound ink and paper, obtaining high standards in production while showcasing best practices in earth-friendly printing.
The photos are stunning shots of beautiful places but, more than that, they are artistic compositions, many echoing the styles of master painters such as Dali, Monet and Seurat. Occasionally the images verge on abstraction, especially Wolfe's mirrored images that resemble the inkblots of Rorshach tests. "I love those," he says. "There's one panoramic photo of ice mirrored in water in the book that, if I were bold enough, I'd print as a vertical."
As the son of commercial artists from West Seattle, the young Wolfe painted and sold watercolors of his teachers' childhood homes. He earned bachelor's degrees in fine arts and art education at the University of Washington, graduating in 1977. His fine-art background, he says, influences everything he does. He even speaks like a painter, with frequent references to "broad brushstrokes."
"Studying art for seven years and being an art educator gave me the intellectual tools and the knowledge to be able to go out and not just record nature as if I were a photojournalist," Wolfe explains. "I'm interpreting nature. I'm framing it with the eye of an artist and the knowledge of a painter, so I get more out of landscape than most of my colleagues who may have entered the field of photography through biology."
His early direction might have led him to a painting career were it not for his love of being outdoors with nature. He learned photography in college as a way to document his mountain-climbing hobby, and eventually it became his chief means of expression.
"One of the reasons I'm not a painter by profession today is that it's hard to create original works of art," he says. "It's far easier for me to create compositions through the photographic medium than it was to sit down in front of my empty easel or watercolor paper and create original compositions, without it becoming infinitely redundant."
Besides offering greater variety, photography was more suited to Wolfe's high energy level. "I painted in watercolor because I could do a painting in hours, as opposed to an oil painting, which took forever to dry," he says. "And photography was even faster. I could afford to experiment with photography tenfold over committing four to six hours to a watercolor painting. The medium became more appropriate to getting me out the door."
With more than 25 years in the business, Wolfe continues to be a legendarily prolific photographer. On the average year his vivacious nature compels him to spend nine to 10 months on the road, shooting more than 2,000 rolls of film. "If I have two days to kill, it drives me nuts. I love keeping my mind and body active," he says. "I set my mental clock ahead to wherever I'm going. I also have a high amount of energy, so I can keep awake for 20 hours in order to fall asleep at the appropriate time, and that helps me get over jet lag much faster."
Known chiefly for his exceptional images of wildlife and indigenous cultures, Wolfe strikes a somewhat new chord with the landscapes in "Edge of the Earth." The book can also be viewed as a sequel, of sorts, to the only other book he has done solely on landscapes, "Light on the Land," published in 1991. "That book was the most successful in terms of my colleagues, people I admire," Wolfe says. "They all bought that book, which is really a stamp of approval."
Since then, the subjects of his books have been largely wildlife-related, but his heart has always been on craggy mountaintops, under the ocean surface, walking the ice fields and watching the desert sands. Back when he painted, his subjects were landscapes, not wildlife. "Landscape is much more dear to my heart, and this book showcases that on a world level," he says.
Eye of the artist
Wolfe says he is puzzled by nature shooters who consider photography to be a lesser art form. "They would say photography is more journalistic, that we are merely there to record what's out there. And I say that's bullshit," he proclaims.
"For me, a photographer is every bit as much an artist as a painter or any other artist because we have such control over how we record the land." Choices of lens, filter, film, time of day, angle, framing and various techniques belie the notion that a nature photographer is just a passive reporter, he argues. "We have lots of control. We're not just there, aiming a camera and taking what nature's providing. I'm creating."
He illustrates his point with photos from "Edge of the Earth." His favorite creative image in the book is of a 2:30 a.m. sunrise shining through a piece of crystal polar ice. The oldest ice in a glacier is at the bottom and is more compressed, making it clear, he explains. When he saw this 150-pound chunk floating in an Icelandic lake, he fished it out with his tripod and propped it up on the bank to see how it would look with light shining through it.
"It was beautiful," he remembers. "It was shaped like an Inuit soapstone carving, very primeval in shape, with a kind of blunt head and shoulders. So I erected this iceberg with stones and then started moving in with the camera and framing it. It's one of my favorite shots, primarily because I created it from elements that were right there. A shot like that is much more personally gratifying than one where you suddenly see a beautiful rainbow. The same iceberg floating in the lake would not have shown light through it.
"That's where the eye of the artist comes in," he adds. "And that's where I would refute anybody who says photographers are simply recorders of what's there."
Nothing is black & white
By making conscious choices about which subjects to shoot and how to present his images, Wolfe has also attracted a fair amount of controversy in his career. Almost a decade after sparking a heated international debate in nature photography, Wolfe looks back on "Migrations," his book about the migratory patterns of animals.
Inspired by artist M.C. Escher, Wolfe published "Migrations" in 1994 at the dawn of the digital revolution, with some photos that had been digitally enhanced. The focus of the dispute was a photo of a zebra herd in which Wolfe had added some animals at the top and bottom of the photo to fill the frame. An introduction in the book clearly stated that some photos had been altered, but critics claimed that Wolfe was presenting a falsehood.
At the time, Wolfe was surprised by the vehement reaction. "What I was trying to say was that it's not going to alter photography," he explains. "It's not like this is the beginning of the end of photography, as a lot of people were assuming. I just thought that if they had any kind of historical perspective they'd realize that any time a new medium or new glitch in the continuum of photography would occur, there was always hysterical and controversial reaction. It happened when black and white saw color come into the fray. People literally said the same thing about painting when photography came along, that no one will ever buy paintings."
A general assumption at the time "Migrations" was published was that actual photography would give way to digitally created fantasy. "And it's not true. There are just as many people out taking pictures now," Wolfe says. "This was an interesting tool being employed for this particular body of work, but it doesn't mean I'm going to just sit in a room playing with computers."
The criticism that he does feel was warranted, Wolfe says, is that the individual photos that were altered were not overtly identified, but he adds that the book made no attempt to fool anyone. He was disappointed that his fellow photographers did not come to his aid and admit that they had used the same technology. "They just hid under the covers until the controversy died out."
A lot of unhelpful misinformation was circulated in the press, Wolfe says. "People who didn't have an opportunity to interview me just made up their own answers. I saw in print that people said that the zebra photo was one animal replicated 100 times," which is simply not true, he says.
"To me, it was an interesting thing to have people nail me on an integrity issue when they weren't using integrity to nail me," he says. "They had a position to try to make it a black-and-white issue, and I felt that nothing is black and white. It's all gray."
The matter is seldom brought up anymore, Wolfe says, and he doesn't think about it much. In retrospect, the controversy probably didn't hurt his career. "Most people knew my name as a result of the controversy, and after a while they forgot the controversy. They just remembered my name." In the end, his opinion of the book, which won acclaim in design circles, is the same. "I'm so proud of that body of work," he says.
If anything, being under the gun taught him to be a better businessman. "You've got to keep moving forward," he advises. "Photographers who don't do well are the ones who go back to Mount Rainier every year because they have no other idea of what to shoot. You could equate that to writer's block. The pure reason I'm successful is that I'm constantly thinking forward - not just the next six months but the next six years, I'm laying out books and ideas. So when those six years are up, we're well into the middle of something."
His new book features a foreword by Robert Redford, which Wolfe is excited about, although he knows that Redford's reputation as an active environmentalist may mean fewer companies will buy the book for corporate gifts. Nevertheless, he's confident that his new project will succeed.
"I think it'll be fascinating, not only from a photographic perspective, but it will just tantalize people to see how great and glorious the world is," Wolfe says. "I want to really intoxicate them with the sheer grandeur of the Earth."
Editor's Note: Art Wolfe will be the Keynote Speaker at PhotoMedia's World in Focus event on Friday, June 6, 2003, at Seattle's Benaroya Hall. During the presentation, Wolfe will preview more of his photos from his upcoming book, "Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky."
IN THE LOUPE: Art Wolfe
Home: West Seattle.
Staff: Eight full-time employees; two nearly full-time.
Galleries at REI stores: Seattle - 222 Yale Avenue North, 206-223-1944; Federal Way, Wash. - 2565 South Gateway Center Place, 253-941-4994; Denver - 1416 Platte Street, 720-855-7887.
Favorite gear: "Canon is the only 35mm I use," Wolfe says, "which was really very appropriate for most of this work because I was dealing in ephemeral moments." He also uses a Pentax 6x7, a Fuji 6x17 panoramic, a Hasselblad panoramic and a couple of Mamiyas. "I almost exclusively use tripods because I like to deliver a very tack-sharp image."
Favorite film: Fuji Velvia, he says, "because I think it delivers a full range of color. There's a vibrancy to most of the images that just pops."
Accolades: Alfred Eisenstaedt Magazine Photography Award, 2000; Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year, North American Nature Photography Association, 1998; Rachel Carson Award, National Audubon Society, 1998; Photographer of the Year, PhotoMedia, 1997. His first self-published book, "The Living Wild," won many awards and was voted "Most Likely to Save the Planet" at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, 2001.
Advice for beginning nature photographers: "In today's world, most photo agencies are full of the usual images," Wolfe says. "Find subjects that are under-documented. There are thousands of obscure animals and even some well-known animals that aren't photographed much. The same holds true for locations that are under-documented, such as Finland, Greenland and some countries in Africa."
Projects in the works: 1) "Vanishing Act," due out in 2005, a book of photos in which animals hide in plain sight. 2) "One World, One Vision: The Photography of Art Wolfe," a seven-continent retrospective of Wolfe's work at the Frye Art Museum, May 3 through July 13. 3) A possible TV series or special about his work in the field. "It would be an over-the-shoulder look at world travel and how a photographer goes about his craft," Wolfe says. "It has all the drama you can imagine, and all the misery."