Interview with Art Wolfe
Alright, it is now time to welcome our guest on the show, Art Wolfe. He is a well-known photographer, internationally known for landscape, wildlife, culture, fine art, much more. He's won more awards, published more books than we have time for. Art, come on out. Thank you very much.
It's great to have you here.
It's great to be here.
And this is great to have you here. Now, you have a class. Now, people might be watching this in the future, so there's probably a class already on the books that's already done, and what's this newest class that you have going on, here?
Well, you know I'm not a gear head but I'm actually giving a talk on how I'm using technology to improve my work. So it's everything from drones to the latest digital cameras, and focuses, and everything kind of geeky.
And what's the name of this class?
We have no name for it. (laughing) But it is rolled into two other lectures and one of which is called Photography As Art, which I've been giving aro...
und the country in major cities and now secondary cities, and it's equating the abstract expressionists, mining their works for inspiration and moving your own work forward, and then there's the other class, which is basically looking at how the world has changed, how small the world is, and how I traveled to all these different destinations, working on multiple books to kind of advertise the cost of production and make a living from it.
Nice, nice. Now, here at Creative Live, I've got to meet a lot of photographers that come in and a lot of the photographers, I've gotta admit, have kind of come into their own in the last 10 years and you've been going at this a little bit longer than 10 years, and some people don't know it, in one of your classes, I know you do a great visual storytelling from when you were a child and how you got into it, so I don't wanna tread on the exact same ground, here, but there's a great story that goes into how you got into it. But for those who haven't seen it, take us back to when you first started to pay the bills in photography. What were you doing and how were you making money?
So I was in college and I, well actually, going way back, I was painting pictures for my junior high teachers. They would bring me little black and white photos of the farmhouses that they grew up in, in the Midwest before they immigrated to the coast, and I would take those little black and white photographs and render them into a little watercolor painting. I'd matte them, I'd frame them. This is the age around 13 and I'd sell them to the teachers, and of course they would buy it for like $30, and so it... Beyond the money, it was such a great confidence boosting thing that you could actually make money from something you were creating.
An unconventional job.
And my father was an independent businessman. Small potatoes but I grew up in that family, where I saw that he ran his own business and so it was a natural evolution for me to get out of college and I spent one year, one critical year, for me, as a substitute art teacher, which meant that I never taught art. It was chemistry, it was physics, it was orchestra, everything I was not qualified to teach but it, oddly enough, gave me the confidence to actually get in front of a group of people and actually carry on a conversation because prior to that, I was really like the average person in the sense that the biggest fear for most people is actually speaking in front of an audience. So I got through that psychological barrier being that one year art teacher.
Yeah, building your skills there but when you first started to shoot photos and make money from it, what were you doing?
Well and in fact, I go over it a little bit in my first lecture. My father gave me one of his old speed graphics that he used off an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific and I used to take those big, box cameras, the ones that you have to look at the image upside down, pull a black cloth over, use a little lute to focus, I mean it was the Ansel Adams model, and I was up on the North Cascades or Mount Rainier, taking black and white photos and it coincided with the first year that North Face climbing shops opened in Seattle and they wanted that work, and so I got those photos on their walls, which then gave me the thought to go to REI, and Eddie Bauer, and half a dozen other climbing-related shops, and get work up there, and I started selling photos off the walls.
And so, I remember going to the old REI, you know, the crickety floors, and they had kinda like the two sections, and there was this ramp here, and I always remember, there was these beautiful photos of owls and wild animals, and here's Art with this tripod that was really weird because I didn't know a lot, I wasn't into photography, but the legs were really big and I think they...
Oh my god. You know, the first trip I went to Africa was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. This was in November, 1980, and I can remember, the secondary part of that trip was to go out in the Serengeti, and I have some of the photos from back then, and the tripods were like 40 pounds. I mean, they were all metal, and big, and cumbersome, and oh my god. We live in a great time, now, with lighter weight everything.
So, you've been in the business for a long time and I've seen that it's hard enough for many people just to kind of pick up photography and get good at it. It's another level to develop a successful business and it's another level, on top of that, to keep one going for multiple decades. You've seen a lot of changes and revolutions in photography and society, what are some of the biggest revolutions and how have you rolled with the punches? What sort of changes have you made with the changing society and dynamics?
Yeah, I think that for a lot of my colleagues, they would look back at the year 2008. I think, not so much the change in technology but the change in economy, it was a year that was famous for the fact that Time Magazine bought five other covers for a dollar a piece using Microstock and it almost devastated the entire photo industry because, historically, in the last 30 years, we would find an agency that would represent our work, they would do the sales, we didn't have to get involved in the business end of it, as long as we supplied the photos, but in 2008, of course, the world economy crashed but at the same time, Microstock became much more known about and the value of individual photos just plummeted and it followed, by one calendar year, the music industry, and so suddenly the value of a photo that we could sell, some people sold a single image for 50 thousand or 100 thousand, now it was getting down to the point where it was pennies. I basically had to reinvent myself to fall back on my teaching certificate and start teaching more and broadly, and taking people out on safari, but at the same time, I didn't completely let go of my love of books, and so I just had to create a different model of working on multiple books at one time so I could afford to do books because, honestly, in today's world, a book publisher could never cover the cost of one trip on an international level, let alone all the ones that would be necessary if you did a really broad-reaching book, and so that's what I've been doing is balancing teaching one day seminars around the country, taking people on safari, doing books, a little bit of the TV, and selling raspberries on Sunday afternoons. (laughing)
So for the aspiring landscape photographer, just taking beautiful landscapes and submitting them to a stock agency is probably not gonna get them too far.
It isn't and I often, because so many people populate my classes that are successful women and men in business, but they always say the same thing and I'm sure you get this, is like I just wanna justify the buying of my lens. And I say back to them, why do you need to make money from your work? If you've got money, you've got a successful life, use photography for heart and soul, for passion and happiness, because the minute you try to make money from it, it becomes more serious and a lot of stress. I mean, I'm not just saying it because I want a bigger audience, I'm saying it because I think that creative people that are driven by passion live longer, happier lives. It's unequivocal.
I'm very much in the same mindset. I think photography is a great activity, it's a great mindset, it's a great way to get you outside, it keeps you thinking about things differently, and so I got one question that I ask everybody in my interviews, and that is what percent of your working time is spent actually photographing?
You know, I wouldn't know. I really don't know.
I mean, can you estimate it? 50%, 5%? 25%? Working time, you've gotta think about all the time that you're working in the office?
You know, I would say five to 10%. You know, if it's an international trip. I just came back from four weeks in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Germany, and the amount of time during those trips that I was actually taking pictures, realistically, 5%.
Okay, you're right in the ballpark with everyone else and I guess the point that I'm trying to make is, if you wanna be a photographer, take Saturday, go out and shoot, and you're gonna be shooting more than the professionals.
Probably, probably. But you know what's really interesting about that? You know, when I'm traveling, international travel is not a picnic, you know, you're cramped into an airplane and there's all these hoo-la-hoops you have to jump through going through airports. The minute I start working is like plugging in an electrical current. It gives me energy. I'm virtually working but that kind of work feeds the soul and the heart, and I don't wanna sound like an evangelist, but it's true. If you look at any of the painters that I studied and had brought into my lectures, all of them, unless they were like Jackson Pollock that ended his life pretty quick, most of those painters really lived long lives. In the impressionist period, Monet, Claude Monet lived into his 90s when the average person lived to 48. So what does that say about longevity? And all those impressionist painters lived well into their 80s and early 90s. I think the creative process, and we're talking about photography, but it could be writing, it could be cooking, it could be dance.
Whatever gets you going.
It could be any of those things. Whatever gets you out of bed and really feeds the soul, pursue at all costs.
You do a bunch of different things. You give public talks, you lead your own classes, you have workshops. What type of morning do you wake up the most excited for as far as what's going to happen that day? You're like, oh great, this is something I'm doing. Is it like a studio shot, you're set up, or you're on location?
You know, I've got a kind of a subgroup of photos that you're aware of called The Human Canvas and I love doing those shoots. Simply because it's all in the studio. It's very different than the rest of my life but what that speaks to is the fact that I'm creating something purely out of my imagination. You know, in fact, you become vulnerable from that point of view because, you know, you could photograph a beautiful sunset over Puchesan, or Mount Rainier, or the Grand Canyon, or whatever it is, and people can say, well I don't quite like it but you don't take it personally because that's the sunset but if they didn't like The Human Canvas, they're making a statement about what's in your coconut.
Because you created everything.
Yeah, exactly, and so I was reluctant and a little apprehension for introducing the work but it has gotten an audience and people do like it because I'm taking the human form and I'm putting people into clay, and baking them, or hand painting all sorts of elaborate designs over it, and the collective, then, is showing people other humans in a very different light, and invariably and always, people are like really, you didn't create that through a computer? No, all the imperfections of my brush stroke, which is getting even lazier, is there, and people love that organic, real part of photography. They wanna know you didn't create that on a computer but it was really the old fashioned way of painting.
It means something and it's kinda like in movies where you hear, they actually built a whole city for this, versus oh, it's all CGI. Even though it may look the same on the screen, emotionally, when you watch it, you take it in differently.
That's exactly the point.
Let's see, where was I going to go with this? (laughing)
I don't know, welcome to my age.
Okay, no, I had somebody on Facebook wanted me to ask a question and I've kind of noticed a trend in photographers. When they start, people just kind of want to take pictures of their vacations and their babies, and then they kinda wanna take pictures of things that they see, and they get better and better at that but there's a limit of how good of things they can see, so they start creating their own things. I have found that there's these kind of two separate categories of photographers and you are one of the best at working in both worlds, and one is having a really good eye for seeing something because, by the way, just in case people at home didn't know, this is my former boss, here. I used to work with Art when you were doing the TV show Travels To The Edge and so I've seen Art working in the streets, and in the studios, and everywhere else, and you've got a fantastic eye and I know there is times when we were in the van, you would stop the van and you would get out with your camera, and I'm like, what is this? Because I don't see it, I don't see it. (laughing) Every once in a while and you would pick up great things, and so you have a great eye for picking those up, but you're also really good at creating something that is just like, I would never have thought of that in a million years, and there are people who work in the studios that are really good at creating things, but if you take them up to Mount Rainier, they will just be completely lost, figuratively. (laughing) How do you see those two different worlds and do they bridge? Tell me about that.
There's a lot of things. Most things, I can't do very well. Seriously but when it comes to compartmentalizing ideas or book projects at one time, and I'll speak to that in my class, is I'm pretty good at keeping bodies of work separate. So I can look at organizing, you know, I can be walking down a street in a back village in India, for instance, and see somebody that was amazing in their eyes or the wardrobe they were wearing, and I can be walking for the next five minutes taking pictures and see this stunning wall which would be a perfect complementary color to the person's wardrobe and I'll go back and find that person, and drag up, and put them in front of that wall because I just, I have a really good memory for potential shots and, you know, how do we call this, when you're taking different elements and you're combining them into a very stylized image? It almost borders on the commercial. Well, in fact, it does, and so I like shooting candid shots but I also love, and this comes from my background as a painter and in art, you know, I graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in art and art education but the art classes were five years of, you know, graphic design, and painting, and sculpture, and all those kind of things. So I have that all ready to pull out of my memory when I see something that I could pull this and that, and create something, and I have no apologies for that. You know, it's just a different genre of...
Well, you haven't labeled yourself as a photojournalist that's documenting life as it stands today in a particular location.
No, in fact, I really wanna play on the word that I am an artist and that I have always seen myself as an artist. I never was a documentarian to the purest sense. Never was a biologist. So I don't get caught up in labels like that. I was under the guise of being an artist, you know. You can open up the field and so, yeah, I shoot a lot of candid shots, I shoot a lot of natural history, you know, early on, I was a wildlife photographer. That's all people knew of my work but in my brain, I was of much broader interest and as I've aged, and as a perfect parallel to a lot of the artists that I studied, all of them, as they got older became much more abstract and broader in their work, and so I'm just following suit.
That's a good message for everybody at home, is you may just wanna put yourself in one category but I think having a good range, it's kind of like a singer who can sing a lot of different notes, if you're a photographer that can deal with a lot of different situations, it's just gonna open you up.
Well, in fact, I bring that up in my lecture, where, you know, the last part is called Photography As Art and I take people, you've been to Havana couple of times. In the back alleys of Havana, or Chinatown in Bangkok, or wherever it may be, and we're navigating the dregs of society, the abandoned buildings and abandoned cars, and we're finding amazing art within and it's a create metaphor, to find birth and renewal in what people have left on the street is a great metaphor.
And it's very uplifting because I know like, I've seen some photographs of yours that look like beautiful, abstract paintings and you're like, oh, it's a rusted out car, and it's like, if you have the mindset of hey, there's art potentially anywhere, and there's something beautiful and I can take a photograph of it. I mean, you don't hear about photographers falling asleep while they're out shooting, you know. (laughing) You're engaged.
It's really cool to offer that to people because not everybody can be flying around the world with a project like this but they can walk down their own street and if their mind and their eye is open, they can fill their whole afternoon within a block of where they live. They just have to have that opening in their brain and well, we try to open that.