Photographer Art Wolfe has travelled to the edge of the world more times than he can remember. From the restless dunes of Namibia to the frozen majesty of Alaska, he has captured the natural beauty of our planet on camera in a career spanning five decades.
We talked to Art about his lifelong love affair with travel photography, the evolution of the craft and how images like his can play a significant role in protecting the world’s most fragile environments.
Art Wolfe shares a moment with a southern elephant seal during filming for Travels to the Edge on South Georgia Island © Sean White / Art Wolfe
Where was your last trip?
Where is your next trip?
What is your first travel-related memory?
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I camped a lot with my family. I adored the Nason Creek Campground in Washington’s Wenatchee National Forest. I loved the sound of the river at night, and as a young kid, the sound of the train chugging through the mountains. This is what got me started and as I got older, I spent as much time as I could climbing and backpacking in the Washington wilderness.
(My first international trip [other than Canada] was to Europe and it was rather shocking. I was doing the whole tourist thing around Paris and was standing below the Eiffel Tower when a man jumped. He hit the level near the souvenirs and had the wind changed it would have been a direct hit on me. Thank you, Lonely Planet, for helping me remember that awful, shocking event.)
Aisle or window seat?
Window to take photos, of course.
What inspired you to become a professional photographer?
When I started my studies at the University of Washington art department, I initially thought I would be a fine art painter with an easel and canvas and perhaps an art teacher on the side as well. At that time in the 1970s, photography was not considered “art” and classes were off limits to all but journalism majors. But as people go, I am very impatient – I like to work fast and I like quick results. I even painted with watercolours simply because I didn’t like waiting for oil paints to dry. On more than one occasion my parents came home to find me drying my oil-on-canvas works in the oven, overwhelming the house with the stink of oil paints.
Since I did a lot of mountain climbing, I wasn’t able to carry my easel and paints up into the mountains with me, so I carried a camera to take photos which I would paint from later when I returned home. It wasn’t long before my photography was getting better and I realised the photo could be my final product. So I got my degree and switched gears. Though in the last few years, I have started combining painting with photography through my Human Canvas project.
A pair of snowy owlets in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of many areas around the world that Art's photos have helped to protect © Art Wolfe
Can you define ‘conservation photography’?
Photography and conservation go hand in hand. It is the union of art and technology used to affect change and educate and persuade the viewer to be environmentally aware and to think about the world around them, from his/her front door and beyond. The relationship of conservation and photography got a big boost when the photo of Earth from the Apollo 17 spacecraft was published in the early 1970s. This view of the planet, called The Blue Marble, became a rallying cry for environmentalism. My photos have been used to protect the Alaskan Arctic, Canadian rivers and a myriad of other areas. As a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), one of my goals is to show the beauty of Earth and the need for conservation.
One of Art's favourite photographs – Spiritual Journey – shows a pilgrim setting out on the Ganges River at dawn © Art Wolfe
What story do your photos seek to tell?
Negativity brings me down and is completely unproductive. I try to tell visual stories of hope and inspiration; I try to be non-judgemental in what I shoot and I like to say that I photograph without prejudice. One of my favourite images that has hung in my own home for years is Spiritual Journey. I love that this image is so androgynous; the viewer has no clues as to whether it is a man or a woman in the boat, old or young. Anyone looking at this image can very easily see themselves within the composition, imagine themselves pushing off into a new space, both physically and mentally. Thus it appeals to just about anyone from an aesthetic point of view.
A lone zebra engulfed amidst a huge herd of wildebeest in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve © Art Wolfe
Of all the places you’ve visited during a long career, which destination has changed the most?
Like gateways to national parks all over the world, the Mara River region of Kenya has gone through great changes; when I first travelled there in the 1980s, there were wild dog packs, leopards and cheetahs roaming where there is now a town with cinder-block buildings and land cleared for agriculture. Hunter-gatherer peoples have been pushed out by pastoralists and border areas of the wild park lands have been encroached upon by illegal charcoal burning and forest degradation. It is now civilised where once animals roamed; but don’t get me wrong, it is still a great place for wildlife viewing once you are in the park. I filmed two episodes for TV shows – Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge and Tales by Light – here precisely because of its beauty and access to wildlife, and I will be returning to the national park next year yet again. Unfortunately, the encroachment that is happening here is happening around the globe, even in the US, where wilderness areas are on the docket for being downsized.
How has travel itself changed from your perspective?
It’s become much more of a psychological challenge to get from one place to another. The multiple levels of security have turned the joy of travelling into a slog. However, the carrying of equipment has gotten easier with digital capture; back in the day, I would take 400+ rolls of film packed in Ziploc bags slipped into lead bags and that was pure bricklike weight.
Red-crowned cranes on a frozen river on the island of Hokkaido, Japan © Art Wolfe
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to aspiring photographers?
Keep your day job and keep the passion in your photography. The profession is a very difficult one to break into and there are a lot of people out there with their cameras. While there are a good number of photographers achieving success, don’t depend upon it for a career, at least in the beginning. Allow it to be your passion and hopefully, success will follow.
You've photographed an extraordinary variety of animals and landscapes – but do you have a special affinity for any particular subject?
Whatever I am shooting at the time commands my complete attention. When I am on location, I am focused. However, my office staff say I am particularly buoyant when I’ve returned from a wildlife shoot and have gotten good results. I guess there is something to connecting with non-human creatures.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I pack well in advance of every trip so I have time to obtain any necessary items, such as specialised gear and prescriptions. I try to acclimatise and as soon as I hit the airport, I set my watch to the local time of my destination. I travel with a French press and coffee; I gotta have it. And last but not least, every night on location I edit that day’s photo shoot.
A brown bear catching a sockeye salmon in Katmai National Park, Alaska © Art Wolfe
What about a favourite destination?
Wow, there are so many – Hokkaido in the winter, the shifting dunes of Namibia, South Georgia Island and its vast penguin colonies, Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Generally speaking, though, my favourite destination is the one I’ve just returned from. I just get such a big charge out of travelling.
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
Knock on wood, I have had remarkably few travel mishaps, such as lost luggage and broken gear. In the winter of early 1990, I traveled to Irkutsk to photograph Lake Baikal. It was not a good time to be in the Soviet Union – a time of serious political gyrations and food shortages; the Russians I came into contact with were grumpy and harsh – even more so than when I had travelled in European Russia several years earlier on a National Geographic shoot. I guess they had a reason to be, their country was falling apart and, even more so then, it was every person for himself. It was a tough couple of weeks and I felt fortunate I could leave. What was ironic was that the shoot was for the local tourist agency.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
Best: get Global Entry if you travel a lot and carry a US passport. It saves me so much time getting through airports.
Worst: stay away from India, they said, there is nothing there for you. I have been travelling there for nearly 20 years now and just love it.
Built on a mountain ledge with spectacular views, the Shanti Stupa in Leh, India, is situated at 13,999 ft elevation © Art Wolfe
What’s your biggest travel fail (ie, a decision that didn’t turn out as planned)?
Oddly enough, I don’t dwell on failures or look back with regret. When I go out to photograph a particular subject and I am not getting results I am happy with, I switch gears and start photographing different things. For instance, I have tried to photograph snow leopards twice in Mongolia and once in India without success. There are gorgeous landscapes and other wildlife to photograph in Mongolia and in Ladakh there are monasteries and towering mountains. I did get a few shots of snow leopards in Ladakh, but from miles away, the photos are sketchy at best. Yes, I do intend to try again in the next couple years.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfill?
Socotra, Yemen. This one has been eluding me for years.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Don’t brush your teeth with tap water. Don’t drink tap water. Don’t do it. And those sandfly bites? Don’t ignore them.
Art Wolfe’s latest book is Earth Is My Witness, an encyclopedic selection of his photography accompanied by stories about his encounters with the natural world. For more information, follow Art on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.