Art Wolfe is a prolific photographer whose work promotes conservation by celebrating the beauty of the natural world, writes David Clark

Image: Crescent moon over Mount Lingtrin, Tibet © Art Wolfe

Art Wolfe is one of the world’s most celebrated nature photographers and his output has been prolific during his 35-year career. He has produced more than 80 books and shot over two million photographs, mainly concentrating on landscapes, wildlife and indigenous cultures around the world.

His body of work consists of high-quality nature photographs with strong compositions and saturated colours. They are images that celebrate the natural world rather than highlight the damage being done. When asked to describe his approach in a 2008 interview, he said: ‘Many would call me idealistic, even romantic, as I choose to shoot what is beautiful in the world, to reveal what we treasure and are perilously close to losing.’

Wolfe has complemented his photographic work with lectures, workshops, instructional videos and, in recent years, his award-winning American TV nature series Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge. Through this work, he has communicated his wonder of the natural world and his belief in the vital importance of preserving it for future generations.

Wolfe has had a passion for both nature and art since his childhood. He grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, and at the age of seven he was given a book on birds and mammals. He read the book avidly and developed a fascination for animals and insects. Simultaneously, his interest in art was encouraged by his parents, who were both commercial artists, and he acquired skills in drawing and painting.

However, it wasn’t until he was studying at the University of Washington that this love of artistic expression developed into a passion for photography. He bought a second-hand Konica 35mm camera and started taking pictures on weekend hikes. ‘Inevitably, the allegiance to painting started shifting into photography, because, I don’t want to say hyper, but I am active,’ he said in an interview in 2007.

Image: A hippopotamus interrupts a flock of flamingoes at Lake Narasha, Kenya © Art Wolfe

‘I found that photography was far easier for me to create original compositions at a faster speed. It is a medium that is suited to my temperament. And I absolutely took to it.’ Wolfe has also maintained a career as an artist alongside his photographic work, and his interest in painting has undoubtedly informed and influenced his photography.

Within a few years of graduating in 1975, Wolfe had completed assignments for National Geographic magazine and published his first book, Indian Baskets of the Northwest Coast, in collaboration with friend and mentor Allan Lobb. His love of international travel was awakened when he documented the Ultima Thule expedition to Mount Everest in 1984, the first group of Western climbers to attempt the Northeast Ridge route since the fatal British expedition of 1924.

The following year he published his first monograph, The Imagery of Art Wolfe. As his career developed, he produced more books on aspects of the natural world and, in 1993, his first how-to book, The Art of Photographing Nature.

Wolfe was quick to adopt digital technology in his work, and his book Migrations (1994), although one of his most successful, was also controversial. It focused on patterns created by large numbers of migrating animals, but Wolfe admitted that around a third of the images had been digitally altered, such as ‘cloning-in’ animals to fill spaces in patterns.

Some critics argued that digital manipulation had no place in nature photography, but Wolfe maintained that this was a different kind of nature photography book. ‘Since this is an art book and not a treatise in natural history, I find the use of digitisation perfectly acceptable,’ he wrote in the book’s foreword. ‘I have enhanced the patterns of animals much as a painter would do on a canvas.’

He later conceded that he made an error in not identifying which images were changed at the post-capture stage and, since then, has always made it clear when the content of his images has been digitally altered.

The scope of Wolfe’s work was further broadened in 1997 when he published Tribes, a striking series of portraits of members of 35 different tribal groups around the world. In the same year, he founded a conservation-themed competition as ‘an event for the advancement of photography as a unique medium capable of bringing awareness and preservation to our environment through art.’ Now known as the International Conservation Photography Awards, it is one of the world’s major environmentally focused photographic competitions.

Image: Art Wolfe surrounded by king penguins, South Georgia Island © Art Wolfe/Art Wolfe Stock

In 2000, Wolfe founded his own publishing company, Wildlands Press, which has since published many of his major books. They have included The Living Wild (2000), which highlighted the urgent need for wildlife conservation and preserving biodiversity in the Earth’s species, and Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky (2003), a book of landscapes shot on seven continents over a nine-year period.

Wolfe, now aged 60, remains passionate about his work and maintains a busy schedule. He travels for around nine months of each year, mainly shooting new projects, leading photographic tours or lecturing. He has recently unveiled his ‘Human Canvas’ project, one that combines painting and photography in stylised images of male and female nudes, and next year he will be working in Japan, Patagonia, Australia and Alaska.

‘The drive has not diminished. I’ve always been enthusiastic about the work that I do and sharing it with others,’ he said in a 2011 interview. ‘It’s rare in life for people to truly find their passion, especially when it’s their occupation. I feel blessed. I feel that I was destined to be a storyteller through the photographic medium, and I don’t take that lightly.’

Books and Websites

Books: Art Wolfe has published more than 80 books, including monographs, photographic technique books and nature books for children. Next year he will publish a revised version of his 1993 technique book, The New Art of Photographing Nature.
Websites: Art Wolfe’s website, www.artwolfe.com, gives a comprehensive overview of his work to date. It includes biographical material and a wide range of his images, as well as fine-art prints and other merchandise.

London Workshop

Art Wolfe will be giving a four-hour seminar on nature photography at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR, on 8 September. Tickets cost $195 (around £135), but AP readers can receive a 10% discount by using the offer code 090812APUK, only at www.artwolfe.com

Biography

  • 1951: Born on 13 September in Seattle, Washington
  • 1975: Graduates from the University of Washington with a degree in fine arts and art education
  • 1978: Publishes his first book, Indian Baskets of the Northwest Coast
  • 1990: His first instructional video, On Location with Art Wolfe, filmed in Alaska, is released
  • 1994: Publishes the successful but controversial book, Migrations
  • 1997: Launches a conservation-themed photographic contest, now known as the International Conservation Photography Awards
  • 1998: The North American Nature Photography Association presents him with the Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year award
  • 2006: Publishes his book, Vanishing Act, focusing on camouflage in the animal and insect worlds
  • 2007: His popular television series Travels to the Edge makes its first appearance on US television
  • 2010: Receives the Photographic Society of America’s Progress Medal for his ‘contribution to the advancement of the art and science of photography’