If you start feeling like an artist, feeling like a photographer and a storyteller, your photos will be better. Photo by Art Wolfe
A fter three decades as a professional photographer, Art Wolfe still lives in his native Seattle. But he’s always on the move. “I learned never to be sedentary,” he says, “never to be easily satisfied, always to push myself in new directions. That’s how you’ll grow as a person and as an artist. I’ve never gotten to the point where I’ve felt like I’ve arrived, I’ve done it, and I can put up my feet and relax.”
Wolfe is a master of genres ranging from wildlife to landscapes to portraits. His honors include an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography and the Photographic Society of America’s Progress Medal, and he’s a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. His PBS television series, Travels to the Edge, has also won several awards.
For our 2011 photo contest, we turned to Wolfe to be our judge. He chatted with The Rotarian about his style, his philosophy, and his advice for Rotarian photographers.
The Rotarian: You’ve done two seasons of your TV series and published dozens of books. What are you working on now?
Wolfe: I’m leading workshops, taking small groups of people to some of the best places we went on the show. I just came back from India and Japan, and I’m heading off to China next. The reason why I shoot, and why I’ve done the TV show, is to share and inspire people through the things I love.
TR: You find as much beauty where you live as you do in more famously exotic places. How can people get inspired by what they have right at home?
Wolfe: Say you live in Phoenix, and you have photographed the desert for years and years. For you to make something meaningful in a place that you’re so familiar with, you have to change yourself. You have to absorb the work of others.
I look at all forms of work. I might say, I love that, now how can I apply that? I’m constantly evolving. When people burn out and their work doesn’t improve, that’s when they’re lazy. They don’t want to change, so they’ll go out to where they’ve had a great shot in the past. They’ve got to do work, though, and be receptive to new ideas.
It’s hard. It’s easy to say it in a philosophical way but hard to execute. But that challenge is where people grow.
TR: What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done to get a shot?
Wolfe: I was working on a book and went to the most beautiful environments all over the world. One was K2 in the Himalayas. I took an assistant, flew halfway around the world, drove three days, hired 26 porters and cooks, and went up the glacier. But that’s not what was crazy. Along the way, I had to get into this little wooden box supported by a rusty cable over a raging river. If you fell out of the box, or if the cable snapped, you’d be dead. In a situation like that, it occurs to you that this might be the craziest thing you’ve done. I hope I die of old age.
TR: What are your favorite new technologies?
Wolfe: Lightroom. After you put your photos on your computer, the program lets you look at them and work with them. A digital capture is like a negative: It’s flat. I play with contrasts, color saturation, cropping.
I switched to digital five or six years ago. When we used to shoot slides, you got what you got. With digital, it’s more similar to a film negative. There are a lot of things people can do to boost contrast and vibrancy, which alone can make a very flat photo sing. You can drop in filters, play with sharpening – minor tweaks that enhance an image so it looks good on a printed page.
My camera is a Canon 1Ds Mark III. But a good photo is about your eye and your subject and how you shoot that subject. Some people just love the technology but hardly take it outside to use it. I don’t fall in that camp. I use probably 10 percent of what my camera is capable of doing. There are so many features that I have no idea how to use. But it’s really about framing and using the natural light. People get confused by technology, but if they spend more time finding a subject and cultivating it, they’ll be far better off.
TR: What advice you would give someone who wants to document a Rotary project with photos?
Wolfe: Look at all the angles. If you know you’re going into a rural mountain village, before you leave, try to get a sense of what that area might look like. Treat the project professionally: Figure out how to tell the story, and make a list of photos that might be appropriate so that when you’re in the field, in the heat of the moment, you won’t lose sight of the storytelling.
TR: We always tell Rotarians to make sure there’s action in their photos. Can scenic shots also help advance a story?
Wolfe: In a non-peopled landscape, I try to use something else that can affect the emotions of the viewer, and that’s either light or the elements, such as fog. A landscape with a storm moving across or a shaft of light coming down at an oblique angle has something that everyone connects with.
TR: What did you look for as you judged our photo contest?
Wolfe: Something that told me the photographer really thought about the subject and did more than aim at a group of people and flash. I wanted to know that thought went into the picture-taking. If I’m going to take the time to jury your work, I want you to take the time to think about the angle and the subject, and move the camera to a place that best captures that subject. If it’s just a shot of people standing there smiling at a camera, it’s boring – there’s no meaning behind it. What’s the salient component? Is it people helping someone else? Restoring a building? Tell that story in a meaningful way. Move. Bend. Look at the light. Luck counts too – some of the best shots I’ve seen are by people who have no clue what they’re doing. But the greatest ones are by people who’ve thought about it. If you start feeling like an artist, feeling like a photographer and a storyteller, your photos will be better. I guarantee you, 12 inches to the front or back or to the side can profoundly affect a photograph.
TR: As someone who studied fine art and painting, whose work do you most admire?
Wolfe: A lot of photographers have done extraordinary work – Ernst Haas, Eliot Porter, Henri Cartier-Bresson. They didn’t just aim the camera at a subject and shoot a static scene. They were more on the fly, capturing the spirit of the moment. In painting, Pollock, Seurat, Picasso. All the usual suspects. I draw from knowledge of hundreds of artists.
TR: Do you consider yourself more of an artist or a photojournalist?
Wolfe: I’ve never looked at myself as a photojournalist; that’s a different genre. I do shoot candid shots, but that’s not what I’m known for. Say I’m in a fish market in Southeast Asia that’s a bustle of activity. Even when I find a subject, I’m going to carefully place myself, use the light to my advantage. I will alter the subject as much as I can to make it clean and elegant and clear. Some photojournalists, of course, are also very artistic.
I shoot a broad range of subjects. I’ll first establish a location, maybe a city in Morocco. I’ll look at the details, then at the culture, and then try to identify the most iconic images. You make it fresh by finding a new angle. In Morocco, I found a way to get up onto a building overlooking a square where rug merchants were unfolding their carpets, and I shot straight down. When you see the photos, you respond to all the colors and patterns. But 99 percent of photographers are going to shoot from ground level. I might think the subject is great, but I think about how I can make it less obvious. The longer someone looking at your photo stays with you, the more you can engage that person.
There are shots that I set up. Andy Goldsworthy uses icicles and leaves and stones, and creates beautiful abstract sculptures out of natural elements. I’ll get physically above people and bring them into circles and make abstract elements out of them, arranging them into a beautiful pattern.
TR: How would you describe your style?
Wolfe: The concepts are simple and straightforward, even when the photos are abstract and require a second and third glance. That carries across every project I’ve worked on. I’ve done books on wildlife made up entirely of photos taken with long shutter speeds that are very impressionistic. That’s a style that’s very different from another book I did called Vanishing Act, where everything is very still and composed to best capture the animal in an intimate way. It all depends on what I’m trying to do. I photograph without prejudice. I could photograph a rusty beer can in a gutter if I thought it told a story.
TR: When you’re photographing people in other countries and cultures, how do you approach the situation? Do you ask permission? Do you try to communicate what you’d like them to do?
Wolfe: I don’t stick a camera in people’s faces and start shooting without some sort of acknowledged OK. I use body language, eye contact, a smile. People are smart – they see the camera. I hold it up and smile, and most of the time they shrug, Sure . Often I work with interpreters or guides, and then there’s no doubt what I’m asking. I respect people. I could shoot all day long in the poorest slums in Calcutta, and the work I do doesn’t show degradation; it shows resilience and life. I try to do work that inspires and uplifts. It’s not that I’m pollyannaish, but that’s what motivates me. I look at my work as serving the community, or the greater good of humanity. How could a person spend 30 years working without having a positive undercurrent?
Last year I was leading a workshop in Vietnam, and on the trip were two very successful men – a dentist and a software engineer. Some farmers who were planting rice in a field looked up and saw these guys photographing them, and they started talking loudly and gesturing animatedly toward them. Those two men took it as a rebuff and started hurrying off. They thought the farmers were unhappy to be photographed, but in reality, they were interacting with them. I told them to yell back, laugh, engage with them, and within five minutes everyone was huddling around looking at the pictures. People get intimidated very fast. When I teach, I demonstrate how I engage people. Once my students get into a culture and don’t feel intimidated, you can see the smiles on their faces and the subjects’ faces as well. That comes with time. That’s what you learn over years of traveling.
TR: What’s the proportion of planning, technique, and serendipity in getting great shots?
Wolfe: Serendipity is 90 percent of it. I’ve been to China before, but most of what I’ll shoot when I go back is something I can’t plan on. When subject, light, and circumstance come together, that’s what I live for. I’m open to so many subjects; I can’t walk down the street without finding something. I could be shooting an abstract detail on a wall one second, a dog running past the next, then a fisherman coming in with his catch. There’s no waiting; there’s just going in and being in an environment where many photos will unfold in front of you. People tend to have a preconceived idea of what to shoot. My challenge is opening up their imaginations to look at a subject in a broader way. I still miss 50 percent of great shots, but I catch a lot nonetheless.