A Conversation with Art Wolfe

By Joe Van Os on Jan 10, 2011

This article is from the Archives of the Photo Safaris Blog. The interview took place in 2000.
Art Wolfe is, arguably, the best-known all around nature photographer alive today. Art is a "driven" guy: hard working, talented, controversial, competitive, and a marketing and self-promotional whiz kid. His distinctive photographic style is immediately recognizable in all types of media, but his strongest point is his enormous body of work reflected in 43 books he has produced over the past two decades.
In this "conversation" with Art, I tried to ask him a number of questions that he is usually not asked in the course of an interview. They deal mostly with what it takes to "be" Art Wolfe, Inc.
Art and I have known each other for about 20 years from a time when we were both getting our respective companies off the ground. We are the same age and have been friends since 1980. For years, Art has considered my Photo Safaris company to be a plague on the stock photography landscape, as he believes we have made it too easy for people to gain access to a variety of hard-to-shoot subjects—increasing stock photo competition. I would counter that the standard of Art's photography has raised the quality bar every year for the past two decades, making achievable competition with him by other photographers a daunting challenge.
In the Seattle area, Art is known not only as THE outstanding nature/wildlife photographer, but also a generous and philanthropic individual who actually does put his time, energy and money "where his mouth is."
Art WolfeThis conversation took place on September 6, 2000 at his home in Seattle.
Joe Van Os (JVO): Art, as a coincidence of timing for this interview I understand you are about to unveil your latest book. Can you tell me what it's about and what inspired it?
Art Wolfe (AW): The book [The Living Wild] is really an effort on my part to celebrate what western civilization has looked at as an important point to mark in our collective history—the millennium change. I really woke up to the fact that we were looking at this fairly momentous change in our history about 4 years ago. It dawned on me that I really hadn't planned to do anything to commemorate it. Since I'm going to be turning 50 next year and that's a pretty important point in my history as well, I thought I'd try to do something a little more far-reaching, and a little more philanthropic in nature, than any of the previous 42 books I've done in the past.
It also was inspired by the fact that I was out in the field at the same time with a biologist who was doing a census on the Florida panther—never expecting to really see one. I not only saw one, but I had a good photo opportunity to shoot it. I knew this is a rare and endangered sub-species of the puma. Why not try to do a book of that nature? Why not look beyond our own borders and go worldwide and try to photograph one of the most charismatic animals in every life zone around the world—and try to photograph these animals free in the wild? And then contact the people I consider among the leading wildlife biologists and environmental writers—who have really made a name for themselves in this world—and ask them to contribute original essays as if they are writing to the next generation of environmentalists and biologists.
JVO: How did you come to select the animals that you put in the book?
AW: When we think of India we think first and foremost of tigers, with Africa it's probably elephants or gorillas. I looked at each environment having some fairly important charismatic "poster-child." They symbolize what we need to say.
JVO: How long did it take to complete the shooting?
AW: From the time I started the project to the completion—which was this March—it took about 3 years.
JVO: Art, I know you self-published this book, and that's different from almost all your other ones. What does it take to self-publish a book like this and what are the financial considerations?
AW: Well, maybe a more pertinent question is "Why did you self-publish?" The reason is that I wanted to do a very big book. The subject matter is very far ranging and big in scope and content. I wanted a big book to really house those photos, and I know that in today's world you would be hard pressed to find a publisher who would actually do something of this nature. It would more than likely make a smaller, less important book. So, we did it simply because we could do it, and by self-publishing we're not adding the huge expenses of a publisher's New York real estate, clerical staff and all those things that go into adding to a book's cost. We could do it cheaper and much bigger and that's what we wanted to do. What goes into it is hiring the writers, the designers, the editors, the distributors and the publicists. All those factors we would not necessarily have done [by ourselves] for previous books, so we really were cutting our teeth every week learning new things. For instance, I didn't realize that if you wanted a book well presented in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, you literally have to pay for that space. You have to buy a shelf in the front of the store; otherwise people will not find the book. Those are things that we learned along the way.
JVO: Are there profits to be made in books in general, or are they means for showcasing your work for stock sales, or for packaged article spin-offs for other print media like magazines?
AW: I think in today's world — because we can design books on computers, and we can take advantage of a smaller staff — there are profits to be made in books. Not necessarily in the book The Living Wild simply because it is so big and so far-reaching that we spent a fortune traveling and gathering the photos. I wouldn't discourage people from publishing their own book, but you have to go in there with your eyes wide open and realize what obstacles occur along the way. We intend to do more books in the future, publishing under our Wildlands Press, but they will be for-profit books. For the book called The High Himalaya, for instance, the unit cost will be low enough and the size of the book will be such that we can market the book at a reasonable price and the content will be interesting to people and we will, in fact, make money on it. But there will be no profit from The Living Wild. It was created as a non-profit book. It has 501C3 [non-profit tax-exempt] status in the US. We've priced the book to get out its really strong environmental message. I think for anybody reading this there are ways of making books and making them more than just showcases of one's work. If the subject is of interest to a large readership, you will make money from it.
JVO: Many of your books in the past have a relatively unknown writer doing the text. How do you go about selecting the writer?
AW: I think in natural history books most writers are fairly unknown. Even if they have strong degrees in biology and they know what they're writing, they're not necessarily going to be famous people. Certainly the writers on the staff of Outdoor Photographer have become celebrities in and of themselves. If it's a book on wild cats you're not going to get a famous writer to do that book. But, you can find very competent people by networking and ask if they would be willing to write a book. For the book The Living Wild, of course we went for very well known people. Fortunately my photos became a platform for them to present their ideas.
JVO: Let's switch gears and talk about shooting and things in general as far as equipment is concerned. What kinds of film are you using these days and to what proportion are you using them?
AW: I'm using Velvia—and I have been for the last 10 years—as my workhorse film. I simply love the way it renders the subtleties of color. To my eye it's the most accurate film out there. It has its limitations, of course, but it has more benefits than anything else in terms of the subtleties of earth tones—and that's basically what I shoot. I shoot the greens and browns for the most part. There's a brand new film that's going to be released in the next month or so called Provia 400. It will replace, more than likely, the M100 to 1000 film. I've just tested some of that and I'm very, very pleased with it and, in fact, it will become my fast film. There's another Fuji film, which is also Provia I believe. It's a very nice 100-speed film. So, I'm still shooting entirely the Fuji films.
JVO: Typically what equipment do you take with you on a normal shoot?
AW: When I'm off on a location I have to predetermine what subjects I'm most likely to encounter. If I can get away without having to bring my biggest lenses, then I will do that. If I know that I'm going to an environment where I'm largely shooting predators or birds of prey, of course I'm going to bring the biggest lenses that I've got and probably minimize the smaller lenses. I certainly don't bring everything that I own; otherwise I would have to bring two other people just to "schlep" the gear around. It really is contingent on the environment, for instance, if I were to go down to Antarctica to expressly shoot emperor penguins I would bring my 80-200—and maybe a wide angle lens and a 1.4 extender for the zoom. I would not bring a 600 down there, why would you need it? So, it really depends on the environment and what the subject might be.
JVO: What is the longest lens you normally use?
AW: At this point the longest lens that I have is a 600 and I could put a doubler on that, but rarely would that be necessary.
JVO: With all the problems with the airlines and their baggage restrictions, how are you getting your gear to your photo destinations, both domestically and internationally?
AW: Right now, I'm carrying all my film on my back. Basically I empty my backpack dividers for the cameras and lenses and so it's just an empty compartment where I put all my film. I take all my film out of the canisters and I put them in freezer Zip-loc bags, lining them up like soldiers. I can get generally about 80 rolls of film per bag and I might bring five bags along. That fits on my back—and then I get them hand inspected wherever I can—most places still hand inspect. All my cameras are put into Pelikan cases and then put into big duffel bags and so there are no obvious camera cases going through the baggage claims.
JVO: What percentage of your shooting relies on today's auto-exposure and auto-focus technology?
AW: I'm like everybody else, when I turned 48 my eyesight went from close focus to distance. I have very good eyesight for distance, but I still rely on auto-focus when I'm filming anything in motion and I'm also relying on auto-focus as a test to see if it pops into sharper focus. More times than not, I'm finding that by using auto-focus it does that little last degree of focus that I wasn't aware of. So I'm using it a lot more often.
JVO: How about auto-exposure?
AW: I'm still almost 100% trusting the manual exposure and finding some middle tone in my landscape and that's just my particular prejudice. I know that people shooting fully automatic are probably getting better results on average than I am. But I'm prejudiced about that; I'm still doing things the "old way."
JVO: How many different camera systems are you using?
AW: Just like the lenses that I choose to take, it depends on the subject. If I'm going to an area where I'm largely shooting wildlife, I only take my 35. If I'm going on a trip like the one I just came back from—the Rockies where I just spent a month—I've got the 35, a medium format and a panoramic.
JVO: Are you shooting less 35mm because you're using these other formats?
AW: No, I'm probably shooting more 35, simply because I love it, even on the book I'm working on [now], a sequel to Light on the Land. A lot of the imagery in that book was really ephemeral, very transient, very fleeting moments of light. Even though I'm getting better at spontaneity there's no substitute for using a 35 when everything is changing dramatically. I still choose to use that format and, with the fine films we've got today and the very fine reproduction in book form, it is not a drawback. The only place that I find using the larger formats really makes a difference is in the [art print] galleries that I've got, where I want to blow up the prints to wall size. It's nice to have the larger image to work with.
JVO: Art Wolfe, Inc. has grown extensively since we first met in the early 1980s. How many staff does it take to run your company and what are their jobs?
AW: I've got 11 staff, and I try to keep it to 11. I don't want to grow just for the sake of growth. Part of my business is split into the retail market because, as I get older, I would like to start to trade on the name that we've developed over the years. "We," meaning the staff and myself. Branding the name and developing products requires an entirely different staff than would necessarily sell photos to the editorial market or develop calendars and so forth. So, there are people in my office who are doing nothing but bookkeeping, and there are people who are manning our website. I've got a full time photo assistant when I'm on the road. I've got a professional framer who works for me and then I've got people who run the photo library and they have assistants. I've got a computer programmer who does a lot of digital work for the advertising market. As we get into publishing, our programmer is also a very fine designer so we can design everything from calendars to card sets to smaller books in-house, which is where my interest lies in the future.
JVO: Could you elaborate on the history you have with REI [Recreational Equipment Inc.]?
AW: I first walked in the doors of REI in 1977 when I was just getting out of college. I asked if I could have some photos of mine on the walls and they graciously said "yes" and that began a relationship that continues today. Certainly the store managers at the time are now the top echelon that runs REI, so I've had a long-term relationship with these very same people. In the last four years we've gone from just having photos on the walls to having a full-fledged gallery—not only in the Seattle store, but also in Minneapolis, and two months ago we opened a third one in Denver—with the idea of effectively merchandising the products that we're developing. That, in addition to developing a very strong web presence, is part of our future.
JVO: What is your opinion of the way the stock industry is heading, in light of all the acquisitions and mergers that have taken place especially with Getty and Corbis?
AW: In the future there will be far fewer photographers represented by these agencies. The people who have other full-time occupations, who have been [marginally] feeding stock agencies are going to have less of a presence in these agencies. I think the people who are not up to the task of competing and shooting new material will go away. I think eventually it will come down to the top professionals having a very strong presence, and that's the way it started out 20 years ago. It's just a matter of course, it's the reality of the situation, it's the separating the wheat from the chaff or whatever it is, but that's definitely going to be happening in the future. Now it has become much more competitive and, with these agencies becoming two large agencies, we're all in the same house. So many people who have had a place in the past will probably find themselves not being represented in the future.
JVO: How many original images do you have with Getty?
AW: I can't answer that. I don't really know how many they've got. I don't even know what I've got to be perfectly honest.
JVO: Because you're on the road so much with extensive traveling, who edits your film these days, and how is it done?
AW: I still edit my own work, even though I might be gone for a month. If I'm home for two days I'll have edited everything I've shot in the previous month. I hope I never lose that. For me, I want to be the first one to see my shots. One of the reasons I stopped working with [National] Geographic 20 years ago is that they insisted on having me send my work to them. They would edit it and then I would fly back and see what they'd edited. For me that was never a viable way of working. I always wanted to be the person who saw my work first.
JVO: Have you made provisions as to what happens to your images in the event of your death?
AW: I've created a foundation. If I die in a plane accident tomorrow, my business would revert into a foundation that would continue to employ the current staff members. A portion of those proceeds would go to scholarships for a young man and a young woman to encourage them to go into the [nature photography] business for the next generation. Then it would be under their leadership to take the foundation, wherever. They'll know what I'm about and what I would like to see. I think fostering photography as a form of communication and helping the environment are the two drives of mine and that's what would be very important to me. But I also would hate that, if I suddenly died in an accident, 11 people would be out of work overnight — and now that won't happen. And in fact, many of the employees who work with me have said that actually the value of my photos would rise if I suddenly died! [He laughs.] So that keeps me on my toes when I'm around them as well. [He grins and raises his eyebrows.]
JVO: You've been very generous with your limited time at home with fundraising activities for conservation and AIDS-related charities. Do you think it's obligatory for other successful photographers in our genre to do the same?
AW: I think if people can afford it financially—and if we're talking about our genre—then they can certainly afford time. I've done a lot of slide shows and fundraisers and we certainly have contributed to a lot of the [charitable] auctions around my community. When it comes to books, they have a better reach and I always like to be able to bring in people [who can help a cause]. For instance, for Tribes—a book on indigenous cultures—we invited the director of Cultural Survival, who is really driven to help these cultures, to write the forward. A portion of the proceeds would then naturally be driven towards that organization. We did a book called Rainforests of the World where we invited the Rainforest Alliance to be part of the book and to have a portion of the proceeds to go to their organization. Likewise with The Living Wild, if the book does well the Wildlife Conservation Society will receive a portion of the proceeds. So, I think, you can contribute—not necessarily by having money coming out of your pocket directly—but if you're working on a project of that nature you can still drive money and awareness towards the right places. I do believe it's an obligation. I've made a living for 30 years from the natural world, why not help and foster that along?
JVO: If you were confined to shooting in one location for the rest of your life, where would it be?
AW: If one location is defined be a very small geographical region, I certainly would not be unhappy to be stuck in East Africa. On any given day you can go out and shoot ten times the number of animals and birds you could ever do in the United States. That is one of the reasons that I keep going back to Africa. If you don't have the economic means to travel like that, I always encourage people to go out in their local neighborhood. Without the great diversity it forces one to become a much more sensitive photographer. Everybody can go out and stand in front of the Grand Canyon and get a grand landscape, but not everybody can go in their local woodlot and document what's there in a sensitive, challenging way.
JVO: What do you see are the future new horizons for nature
AW: I think that as the market shrinks and becomes much more competitive it forces us, in a good and positive way, to look at subjects in new light. I do not want to be shooting the same subjects 20 years from now that I've been shooting 20 years before. And certainly with the coming of age of digital, you can play around with the content and make something dynamic and new. You can play around with different kinds of films. In the case of The Living Wild, I stepped back and started incorporating a lot more of the wide angles with neutral density filters, polarizers; things that you would not necessarily associate with just straight wildlife photography. I started using those filters and that type of lens just to create new imagery that looked different than Migrations, which looked different than Rhythms from the Wild, and different from all the previous books. I'm always trying to find new ways of recording the same subject and in new light and I think it has served me well over the years.
JVO: Have you had a shooting day in the field that was more significant than others?
AW: Over the last three years I've traveled far and often. I've had great, great experiences from getting into the water with great white sharks to watching a humpback whale and its calf dive right below me, and swim around me, literally. These are memories that I'll never, ever forget. One of the most intriguing and frightening moments occurred as a result of this [new] book when I was in a national park in Southeast Asia. I was approaching a great one-horned rhino on foot and its full-grown calf. I took one shot, the rhino looked up and I clicked 10 shots in rapid succession at which time the rhino turned and attacked! Fortunately in this giant marsh there was one single tree to which I ran, where my assistant and two guides were. For the next five minutes that rhino and its calf were within three to four feet of us, trying to kill us. If it weren't for the fact that this tree was a banyan tree and it had buttressed roots, we probably would have lost at least one or two people. What was amazing and startling to me is the fact that this rhino was so determined to gore us and stomp us to death. It wasn't just a flash warning—this animal was intent and stayed with it. The guides were clubbing it on the head with their walking sticks. Fortunately after five minutes the rhino broke off the charge. Had it not been for that tree; there would have been several deaths. It points out two things. Number 1—I didn't know the behavior of the subject I was after. Had I known, I certainly wouldn't have approached on foot. Number 2—I didn't know the history of the area. These had been the former hunting grounds of the King. These [very] animals have lived during those times and they associate anybody on foot with potential danger. The rhino's reaction in this case was to attack rather than to run. In fact, in this particular part of the world over 30 people each year are killed by rhinos. This, of course, was information I was not aware of! So it points out the fact that you should know your subject and have a good sense of its behavior before putting yourself in danger. I've worked 30 years in the field, but you learn something new every day and fortunately this little lesson did not claim my life. It was quite a day!
JVO: What do you think you'll be doing in 10 years?
AW: What I'd like to do is publish more of my own work, have one book a year or one every two years and make them well-thought-out and very well-designed. I'd like to develop some products that have my name associated with them and cater to the fine art market and continue doing what I do. I don't know how to do much else and I'm certainly not old enough to want to retire—and nor would I ever entertain those thoughts. So I'll stay the course, do finer products and better photography and keep focusing on that, because we all know the world needs more of that. If you listen to politicians today, even though [Al] Gore is much more environmentally friendly [than George Bush], they're still both talking mostly about taxes and health care. Our real concern is nature—it's going to affect us all. If global warming continues at the rate it is, I think we're all going to be paying much more attention with a stronger focus on the environment. I think photographers like myself are conduits to the larger world.