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Art Wolfe Featured

“Abstract Study #1,” from Wolfe’s “The Human Canvas Project,” in which he hand-paints his subjects and backgrounds in a highly controlled studio setting to produce a painterly camouflage effect. “Abstract Study #1,” from Wolfe’s “The Human Canvas Project,” in which he hand-paints his subjects and backgrounds in a highly controlled studio setting to produce a painterly camouflage effect.
© Art Wolfe / www.humancanvasproject.com

1996: Painting the Human Canvas: After 15 years, we catch up with our past award-winner, Art Wolfe, to see how his career has progressed.

The soul of the artist is not confined by success; it is fed by creating new pieces. Nature photographer Art Wolfe's unbroken string of exciting projects over the last 30 years displays an upward trajectory that shows no sign of slowing.

In the years since being named PhotoMedia's first-ever Photography Person of the Year in 1996, Wolfe has continued to enjoy great career success. With a string of popular books, a television show seen all over the world, travel workshops in the most beautiful locations on the planet and a new project called "Human Canvas," Wolfe has been busy both behind and in front of the camera, creating beautiful compositions and expanding his endeavors.

It all started for Wolfe at the age of seven, when he was introduced to nature with a little book on birds and mammals that he read and memorized from cover to cover. His childhood obsession with learning about different animal species planted the seed for his later passion: promoting conservation and environmentalism through photography.

His initial success as a photographer came in 1984, when he photographed a Mount Everest climbing expedition. The experience also served as the catalyst for his travel bug, he says.

"Though I never went over there with ambitions to climb the summit, I went … with the idea of seeing Lhasa, Tibet, before [it] would inevitably change," he says. "In fact, I did do that &mdahs; I got photos that would historically be hard to replicate now, and more importantly, I got that sense of remote culture, which was worthy of documenting before changes would occur."

That Everest expedition also led to his 1993 book "Endangered Peoples," which is "a celebration of ornamentation in remote cultures around the world," he says. "And even though my association with wildlife photography has really been cemented extremely well, I've been shooting cultures for a good quarter of a century in many books rotating around the human condition."

Raising awareness

Publishing photography books became a vehicle for the Seattle-based Wolfe to raise awareness about the earth's fragile condition. One volume that was immensely rewarding for him was "The Living Wild," a call to preserve natural habitats. The book included commentary from renowned environmentalist writers such as Jane Goodall, George Schaller and Richard Dawkins, and was filled with Wolfe's photos of megafauna from every ecological zone on the planet.

"The Living Wild," published in 2000, was also the impetus for his very successful 2003 book "Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky," full of spectacularly lit images from every continent, depicting the grandeur of the planet's deserts, mountains, jungles and forests.

Still, with all of Wolfe's publishing success, it wasn't until his TV show that he was able to reach a broader audience. "Art Wolfe's Travels to the Edge" was broadcast over two complete seasons in 2007 and 2008, and is currently aired in 60 countries worldwide.

"The underlying desire in all of the books that I do is to communicate," he says. "I realized that just one episode [of a TV program] could reach a bigger audience than, collectively, any of the 83 books I've worked on. It's rewarding and gratifying to know that something I've produced has a broad reach. And that show had three components: it had a little bit about photography, and it had a lot about adventure, but it wove in strong environmental messages throughout."

The success of his TV show, according to Wolfe, is his single greatest satisfaction in his career so far. He doesn't quantify his success statistically or monetarily, though. He'd rather view his career as a mule going up a steady grade, with neither a meteoric rise nor a large dip downward.

Wolfe has endured a few setbacks here and there, but he refuses to dwell on the past. One misstep was investing in a gallery space south of Seattle, where he attempted to bring in photographers from across the country to be a resource for the Pacific Northwest photography community. The school turned out to be unsustainable, so he closed it and moved the gallery to a new, higher-profile location at 520 First Avenue South in Pioneer Square, Seattle, which just reopened on May 3rd.

Since then he has moved on, continuing his association with the International Conservation Photography Awards and opening a gallery space at the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas with a few other photographers.

New directions

Wolfe, who studied painting and art education at the University of Washington, has repeatedly relied on his sense of design and knowledge of art to help him cultivate his photographic language. Now he has stepped away from his traditional work in the natural world to try a new creation: "Human Canvas," a black-and-white series of painted nudes shot against a similarly painted backdrop, making the human figures appear to merge into the background. Wolfe himself painted the large sets, as well as the people, to create this engaging fine-art work that is sure to send ripples through the photography world.

"The 'Human Canvas' is largely the study of the human body, the human form, but not from a sexual or sensual point of view," he explains. "It's more theatrical in its content. It draws from previous work I've done with tribes, where the adornment in these remote cultures was highlighted. And so I took a lot of the elements of their designs from Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, and I incorporated that into adorning models who had been painted either white or black."

Wolfe has had a storied career that any nature photographer would envy. In more than three decades of focusing on the beauty of the earth, he has shed light on serious environmental issues via his photographic compositions. Now he is delving back into his underlying drive, which has always been creating art his way.

"I just really believe if you're born and driven to do it, it's going to happen, and if you think of photography as a pastime or a sideline, you're never going to achieve independence," he says. "It takes a certain amount of 'This is what I want, this is going to feed my soul and my passion,' and if that's it, do it. If it's just about money, get the hell out of the business and try something that will truly make money for you." artwolfe.com.

Adam Crawford
Story Author: Adam Crawford

Adam Crawford is a photographer and writer residing in Venice, Calif.  He recently became associate editor of Rangefinder and AfterCapture magazines.

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