This is the second part of a two post interview with legendary landscape photographer Art Wolfe. For Part one, click here.
PETER: In an interview with another of our writers, Jim Goldstein, for his podcast EXIF And Beyond, you talk about the importance of using design elements in your photography. Can you please explain how you use design in creating photographs?
ART WOLFE: For me, and you and for everybody else out there the biggest challenge is to go into any environment, whether it’s interior or exterior, urban or wild and find the shot. Find something within all that view in front of you that you’re honing in on and you’re making composition that engages you but more importantly, ultimately engages somebody else. Finding that subject is difficult whether you’ve been doing it for 30 years like I have or just picked up the camera.
So what I do is I have a lot of different folders, if you will, in my brain and one of them is the elements of design. So I’m just sitting here and looking and talking to you and I’m noticing the curvature of these seats, the patterns, the textures and all of that and that is a visual cue for suddenly seeing a potential photo. It’s no less true if I’m walking a path in Mt. Rainier [National Park] or along the shore of the Olympic Coast. It could be a texture cue. It’s just a visual cue that alerts me, “Ah may be a photo here”. Do you get it?
And I have all sort of other ones, you know, whether it’s color or atmospheric conditions, I make up all these little folders of idea in my brain that I can access while I’m in the field. And it’s not that this is the right way or the wrong way for everybody; it’s the one way for me that works.
Those patterns in nature, the elements of design which are shape, pattern, texture and line are ones I often draw upon whether I’m in a culture photographing wildlife and swarms of animals or shooting intimate landscape, they all apply; texture, pattern, line and shape.
PETER: If this whole “photography career” thing fell through the floor tomorrow, what else could you see yourself doing for a living?
ART WOLFE: (no hesitation) Teaching. I love teaching. In fact right now I’m teaching a series of really high end workshops that I just got back yesterday from teaching on the east coast. It’s fun to take a small group of people that are really, ummm, quite successful in their respective fields and teach them something that they’re struggling with.
Finding the subject is the main thing for most people and especially if they are technically proficient, you know. Many of them are lawyers, doctors, they own companies. But when they come to nature or when it comes to composition they struggle. They’re all right handed and uhhhh, it’s not that right handers aren’t artistic either, but I do believe in the theory that left handed, right brained people access art, much easier. I think that’s unequivocal if you look at all the successful artist over the years.
So I help people that are technically proficient, competent and confident find their way through teaching [them]. And that’s a noble profession for me.
And then third would be landscape design. I like working the landscape.
PETER: Not just photographing it?
ART WOLFE: No, I worked on a yard at my home in West Seattle for the last 30 years and it’s a Japanese style garden with old pine trees and natural elements from the Northwest [USA]. I made a water feature with waterfalls and it’s all soothing but it’s also photogenic and it’s a great magnet for wild animals. So it serves multiple purposes.
So I’d love….if I couldn’t take pictures it’d either be teaching or, you know, pruning trees (laughs).
PETER: A lot of beginners get stuck in a rut of focusing on main subjects and filling the frame with them. How important is it to you to find a way to see things around the subject to enhance the image?
ART WOLFE: It’s absolutely imperative and in fact it’s one of the center points of new class that I’m teaching that is really based on positive and negative space. In fact I started out the class by asking everybody to draw a dog. “Make a rectangle and draw a dog.” And they put the dog right in the middle. Then I tell them, “Redraw the dog where the ears, the tail, the legs are all touching the four corners of the frame.” And then they start to see the spaces around it. The elements around any subject [are] as important, as far as I’m concerned, as any subject itself. Once you start locking that into your brain, you start to really…striking a balance, you start to look at the light and dark areas and suddenly the photo has strength and balance.
PETER: How much of what you’re shooting now is digital?
ART WOLFE: It is 100%. And it all changed like this (snaps fingers). I went to Antarctica on a trip about five and a half years ago and I brought 400 rolls of film, my trusty film camera and I then brought this little point and shoot digital. But it was still of good quality. I waited until the cameras were of equal quality and it was like a twelve megapixel camera. And I took one picture, in the rain, crossing the Drake Passage, which is the body of water between South America and Antarctica, of a bead of water in the rain on a railing. I took it back to my room and downloaded and I saw the image come up and it was like (pause) immediate.
I think that’s probably the response most photographers have once they start switching to digital. That immediate result meant I have never shot a slide since. It was just that fast. All that film came all the way back to the United States and I have never have shot another slide since. Do you believe that? It is true. It is true. It’s dramatic and it’s true.
And since then, of course, digital has far outpaced the quality of film. You know, there may be just a couple examples where film still has…you know…..very long exposures. But boy, I wouldn’t go back. And what I said earlier also is analogous is, like, I’m not into technology. I’m into the subject. And if that technology enables me to capture the subject faster and better, why not?
PETER: And a follow up to that. How much emphasis do you put on post production work in the computer?
ART WOLFE: It really depends. I don’t, we don’t, spend a whole lot of time creating fantasy. Nor will I spend much angst removing a telephone pole if it’s way off in the corner and it’s drawing your attention…that thing’s gone. So I don’t have problems with that. Where we use the technology almost continuously is, out of a shoot, the photos we choose to use in any kind of situation, we’ll go through contrast and saturation and all those and we’ll set them to a standard that’s pretty much agreed to in the industry. We’re basically making the digital capture look more like the Velvia film we used, so we’ll just get to that point.
PETER: We recently asked our readers a question I’d like to pose to you now: If you could only visit one place or area for the rest of your life and that was the only place you were allowed to take photos, where would it be?
ART WOLFE: It’s a place that I’m actually going to take a tour to, and people can sign up to. And it’s also true, it’s South Georgia Island. I’m going down there in November and there’s several places available on that trip with me. We’re going to go from South Georgia onto Antarctica. If you stick around for this lecture, you’ll see towards the end I close with that area, it’s just…..it speaks for itself. It’s fantastic.
I’d again like to thank Art Wolfe for taking the time to chat and When Paddison of Seattle Photography Associates for arranging the meeting. Check out Art’s site for more information on his workshops and photographic works.