Margins of the day
Wolfe likes working the before and after full light times of the day. “I really enjoy working the margins of the day, before and during sunrise and sunset,” says Wolfe. “The low light softens harsh edges and even the most mundane scene looks like a painting. There’s a brief moment of transition during which the sun transits the horizon, but often you’ll have longer periods before and after the event where the landscape is bathed in beautiful light.
“The further you travel from the equator, the more time you will have in these ideal conditions — all the way to the poles where you can photograph nearly all day with the sun never quite leaving the horizon.”
Art Wolfe was born and raised in Seattle, WA and still calls the city home. His parents were commercial artists. “I was lucky because my parents gave me a huge amount of leeway,” Wolfe notes, “but I think that is because they saw I had a focus even at a very young age. I was obsessed by wildlife and the outdoors, and sat with my mother as she learned to paint.”
He received bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and art education at the University of Washington. During his four years there he did assignments for National Geographic. His training has guided his photography. He uses artistic and photojournalist styles to tell the stories of conservation and environmentalism during his five-decade career. He is a dedicated advocate for our planet’s environment and its Indigenous peoples.
He works on several levels, but the foundation is to win support for conservation issues around the world. William Conway, former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society says Wolfe is, “the most prolific and sensitive recorder of a rapidly vanishing natural world.”
Art Wolfe has made literally millions of photographs on every continent. He travels nine months of every year often to the same place to make photos that have evaded his camera. “Of course, I always remember the shots I didn’t get,” Wolfe said, “but it gives me a reason to return and try again. I am nothing if not stubborn.”
During the 1990s, he went to Ladakh, India hoping to photograph snow leopards. After several tries, he did get a shot at a long distance. The result was not what he wanted. Commenting on the photos he says, “Needless to say, Ladakh is still on my travel list.”
He also says, “Of course, I always remember the shots I didn’t get, but it gives me a reason to return and try again. I am nothing if not stubborn.”
Wildlife & landscapes
“For me, wildlife and landscape photography go hand in hand.” Wolfe relates. “Without one you wouldn’t have the other, but that’s my style of photography. Some people like to specialize in certain subjects and some equipment is definitely more suitable to one genre or another, as are one’s reflexes and knowledge of natural history. As for me, I am a generalist — I like to say that I shoot without prejudice.”
With travel to the far reaches of the world easier than ever in history, getting there is only a beginning. Training is one key to making memorable photographs. Practice is another one. “In my mind, photography is more about composition and training your eye,” Art says. “You can have the most expensive equipment in the world and still take bad photographs.”
Art Wolfe leads workshops for people who want to make images of the world, its wildlife and sweeping vistas. “The best way to get comfortable and then get better is to practice,” Wolfe says. “The beauty of shooting digitally is that results can be seen instantaneously. Whether it’s with your phone or a point-and-shoot, or a nice DSLR, everyone has to start somewhere. I tell people to set up lessons for themselves, set up goals. If you need a nudge, there are so many resources online now that make this very easy.”
Wolfe understands that failures are nothing more than teaching tools. He knows that each failure brings him a step closer to success. In his TEDx talk, Art explains how you can go from a landscape to a naked man covered in paint by evolving your vision (opening photo, top row, first and last photos).
Read more stories about inspiring photographers in On Photography.