Nature photographer Art Wolfe discusses the challenges and triumphs of translating his photographic art into the business of television.
I found myself amid the dunes of the southern Sahara, surrounded by men cradling AK-47s. They lit cigarettes, backs turned against the abrasive desert wind. It was getting dark. I asked myself, "How did I get here?"
It was my own fault. I was in Mali last year shooting an episode for the second season of my public television show, "Art Wolfe's Travels to the Edge," with my crew of three. The men with the firepower were in my employ, thank goodness, hired to guard against bandits who prey on travelers.
The show is just one component of my strategy to recast my business in the face of the collapse of stock photography, a once-thriving enterprise that has been eroded by consolidation, royalty-free images, microstock, shrinking advertising budgets and today's general economic meltdown.
Before the show began, I had been ricocheting around the world for 25 years, shooting landscapes, wildlife, cultures and abstracts. I figured that my stock collection would act as my 401(k), but as the returns per image began to decline in the late 1990s and the number of images accepted by agencies contracted, I saw that my rosy assumptions were unfounded.
Businesses, like species, must adapt or go extinct. I looked for ways to grow the business without compromising what I wanted to do. I needed to refine and solidify my goals. Only then could I figure out how to meet them.
I knew I was going to continue working as a photographer and growing as an artist, but I also wanted to establish a stronger presence in the community and to advance the environmental agenda I've had since the beginning of my career. Finally, I wanted to present my vision of art and the world to a wider audience.
To begin this process, I decided to open a gallery in Seattle that would also host classes and serve as my office. We got off to a shaky start — literally — when the 2001 Nisqually earthquake hit the Puget Sound region. Although it damaged some surrounding buildings, the temblor left us with nothing more than a crack in our cement floor. We now consider that crack a design feature.
After surviving that hiccup, in 2005 we set out to sell the idea of a television show. I knew that I would reach more people with a single episode of a TV show than I had with the 50-plus books I had published during my 30-year career
Lining up the shot
Before we could shoot the first frame, however, we needed a public television station to shepherd us over the treacherous shoals of public broadcasting. Our research led us to Oregon Public Television, well known for managing successful programming. To our delight, the station jumped at the chance to partner with our team.
We had worked for years with Microsoft, Canon and Conservation International, one of the premier environmental organizations, so we knew they would be good fits to underwrite the show. Labyrinthine negotiations ensued, but in the end, we all reached agreement on how to make it happen.
Seattle has an amazing reservoir of talent, and we were lucky enough to attract some of the area's brightest stars. Each person we hired was critical to the success of the show. Valerie Griffith, for instance, is an Emmy-nominated producer. She and managing editor Dan Larson are the magicians who give the series its voice. Karl Bauer, our field director and principal cameraman, ensures that we get the footage needed to tell each episode's story. While Karl remains focused on me, our director of photography, Sean White, records the surroundings artistically and creates video representations of what I see through my lens.
I was ready for hard work, but I wasn't prepared, at first, for the limitations and frustrations I would face with a television crew following my every move as I tried to photograph.
When TV crews record a scene, they often need to get the same shot over and over again. Because my photography concentrates on the wild world, my subjects often appear briefly before me and then disappear just as quickly. I have to grab the shot in that decisive moment, not repeat the same phrase into the camera. This led to all kinds of frictions, resulting in some spirited and colorful exchanges between me and the crew.
I came to recognize, however, that the crew members were fighting to produce the best television show possible and that they were being thoroughly professional. Over time, I did my best to accommodate their needs while doing my work, but the tension generated by mixing still and video media will always remain as we all push to meet our goals.
Time and again I see something wonderful and, before the crew can even unload their cameras, I'm streaking across a meadow or hiking up a hillside. Sometimes they lose track of me, but when I find something beautiful or special or ephemeral, I must capture it.
If you've ever been to Antarctica, you may have seen food chases. A penguin parent arrives with a gullet full of fish, and the young are clamoring for their meal. Instead of feeding them, the parent sprints away with its braying offspring hustling after it, bumping into each other and falling over. Eventually, one young penguin will corner the parent and get the meal.
Substitute me for the parent and full-grown men wearing Arc'teryx jackets and toting high-definition video cameras for the chicks, and you have a fairly accurate picture of the scene.
Labor of love
Production assistant John Greengo came up with a rule of thumb during our travels: It takes at least three airplane flights to get anywhere interesting.
Once on scene, we drive for hours. It often seems that our real job consists of packing and unpacking crates, packs, duffels and suitcases.
Either John or field producer Gavriel Jecan makes sure that everything moves from location to location, that my gear remains in working order and that images arrive safely on my hard drives. To shoot a 13-episode season, we are on the road three weeks out of four for nine months, and we assemble more than 325 hours of video.
Here's a nasty secret about public television: They pay next to nothing for a series. The funds we received haven't even covered our costs.
Fortunately, our goal wasn't immediate profit. From a business standpoint, much like a coffee-table photography book, the show acts as a large ad for "Art Wolfe Inc." And we know that, over time, we will realize some profit from the content, in the form of DVD sales and video stock.
The show is really a marketing engine; it drives stock sales and print sales, adds value to our classes and boosts book sales. Over the longer term, we plan to focus on educational and environmental programs coordinated through a nonprofit arm of the business, and the show will aid in those efforts as well.
The true rewards
The personal payoff, though, has been extraordinary. Many of the trips in the first season, broadcast in 2007, repeated some of my earlier expeditions, but in the second year, I visited places I hadn't seen before. I captured images I didn't even imagine before we departed.In northern Mongolia, we photographed the reindeer people. They live in tepees, as do North American Indians, but unlike any other people, they ride reindeer the way we ride horses. It's jarring to see smiling grandmothers and giggling children on caribou. The people have a symbiotic relationship with the reindeer, using them for transportation, food and clothing, while the animals are protected from predators.
In the tiny country of Togo, on the coast of West Africa, we witnessed a startling sight: people seemingly endangering themselves by sprawling over campfires, lost in trances for minutes at a time, before standing up unharmed. Others put burning embers in their mouths and opened them so I could see the embers glowing. They too were unhurt. I have no explanation. People in the world at large remain a mystery.
Focus on culture
I continue to photograph wildlife, which can be seen in the shows about bears in Alaska or the large animal migrations of East Africa, but increasingly it is cultures that fascinate me. I love the interaction with people in remote areas. I feel an affinity for spirituality in all its forms.
In Season 2, which began airing last October, we visited Bhutan, a country where the king measures the success of his reign based on an index he calls Gross National Happiness. As a result of this concept, the forests still stand, the temples are well maintained and the lives of the people seem to match their aspirations. I had the opportunity to photograph in ancient temples, where young monks chanted to the accompaniment of drums complemented by low-toned, blaring horns. People in colorful dress spun in a courtyard, so that they resembled children's tops. I still don't understand the specifics of their belief systems, but I find that contact with cultures such as these elevates my spirit, and I hope the images we bring back do the same for our viewers.
People in the world at large remain a mystery... But increasingly it is cultures that fascinate me. I love the interaction with people in remote areas. I feel an affinity for spirituality in all its forms.
After spending the last 30 years as an artist, I look forward to the challenges ahead. I'm envisioning new ways of shooting, new subjects and new partnerships. I've also returned to painting after a few decades. I know I'm a better photographer now than I was five years ago, and I hope to be a better photographer five years hence.
We are preparing now for our third season of "Travels to the Edge." The task this year will be more challenging than ever, but once we hit the road again, I will be energized. I embrace change, so I always feel as if I am embarking on a new beginning. I hope you come along for the ride.
To see more of Art Wolfe's work and learn more about his TV series, workshops and environmental vision, visit artwolfe.com. Check local public television listings for series airings near you.
"People in the world at large remain a mystery ... But increasingly it is cultures that fascinate me. I love the interaction with people in remote areas. I feel an affinity for spirituality in all its forms."