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Create Art Through Photography

Lesson 2 of 16

Navigating an Ever Changing World

Art Wolfe

Create Art Through Photography

Art Wolfe

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Lesson Info

2. Navigating an Ever Changing World

Lesson Info

Navigating an Ever Changing World

You know, as I grew up and I was in college, I got my first camera. And I started taking pictures on weekends. During the week I'd study Monet and the artists. I would be painting, but on weekends I was in those mountains that I love and learning to climb. And for awhile, I got into this kick of making flags during the week and putting them up on top of peaks on the weekends. Thinking I could rename peaks. You know, I suffered delusions of grandeur, one might say. And in 1969 I put a flag on top of this mountain and renamed it Apollo Peak. Because in 1969, of course many of you remember, we landed on the moon. So I had that kind of bigger ego that told me I could do this, but of course that was just littering the mountains back then. As I progressed into my twenties, my sphere of friends extended into the climbing community and I started leading climbs. I took formal classes on how to, you know, get yourself out of crevices or climb Mount Rainier without killing myself. That linear, th...

at love of painting and love of nature and now I started taking pictures documenting the climbs. My father who worked in World War Two off an aircraft carrier, he was the photographer on the ship. He gave me one of his old speed graphics, and then I started photographing from the tops of mountains and people started noticing the work I was doing. And I got them up on the stores of REI and Eddie Bauer and North Face and I think it was really at that point my allegiance has shifted from painting onto photography. There was very few people back in the late seventies that were using 35 millimeter cameras, which were really coming into their own world at that point. So it was inclusion of my age, my interest, and suddenly I got stories in National Geographic and Audubon's. So in the end Natural History. All of those kind of magazines were just looking for work and there was not a whole lot of photographers. So those were the easy days. Things have changed, but really I look back with fondness. So climbing boots, ice ax, camera became the things that I was, you know, surrounded by. I didn't have fancy cars. All the other things that a lot of other people were really into, my fantasy cars were the cameras and the ice axes. As I said, climbing eventually led to an invitation by some of my climbers that were going to Mount Everest. They were invited by the Chinese government to come into China, through Tibet, up the northeast ridge of Mount Everest. And I was invited to come along as expedition photographer. What a great opportunity. Now I'm 30 years old. I turned 30 on the expedition. That's not true. I turned 30 that year of the expedition. Many of you that know history would know that China really kept what was going on in Tibet quite a secret for all... Ever since the cultural revolution in the fifties. I wanted to go see Tibet. I never grew up with a desire to climb the world's highest mountain. It wasn't ingrained into me, but I wanted to see Tibet because that was a grand mystery. And if I had of spent three months on that big ice cube, I would do that as long as I could see what Tibet was like. And so off I would go. I learned to photograph at cold temperatures and elevation. Our base camp was 16 thousand feet. I personally got up to 25 thousand feet, which is the north col. I wasn't a high altitude climber, but 25 thousand feet is pretty high. Mount Lingtren rose above and beyond. All these things are part of my history. It got me more and more involved with photography and traveling the world. After awhile you climatize. You get used to the cold. It was the winter of 1984, and this was our expedition. A motley crew that came back 378 pounds lighter than when we first left. I'd really recommend if you're looking for a weight loss plan, climb Mount Everest. I'm in the back center with the big red jacket on. The Potala Palace, the photographs that I shot of the Tibetans, as I would photograph, it became really apparent that they didn't even know what a camera was, quite honestly. Think about this, we were the first western expedition allowed into Tibet. And when we went in to the mountains, we were in villages where they had never seen an Anglo Saxon before. So they looked at us with intrepidation, but curiosity and they'd invite us into their homes and it was really those experiences with those remote communities that would transform my life and how I would live my life, quite honestly. And it was this one photo that I took from base camp of these yaks coming into camp and a blowing snow storm and I thought even in the moment I took the picture that there was nothing overtly saying modern times. If Marco Polo had a camera back in the day, he could've taken a picture just like that. And I was hooked. I was hooked for life. I thought, if I survive this expedition, I'm gonna go as far and as often as I can to as many remote villages around the world to document cultures that would inevitably change. And that's what I've done. Basically, and I still do. I really look at my life, there's this linear thread and connections. We all have our stories, but this was mine. When I came back from Everest, I was able to volunteer. I volunteered for this book project. It was published by the Sierra Club and sanctioned by the United Nations. And it was a book called "Endangered Peoples." And they put me on the road and I traveled all through South America, all through Southeast Asia, all over Africa. What I would do is visit countries where the governing country was really harsh on their indigenous cultures. I wanted to tell that story. I had no fee. They gave me the expenses to travel. A pretty rudimentary budget. But for me, the opportunity was huge to be able to have my transportation paid to go into these remote places. One of which was Irian Jaya. The Javanese people in islands a thousand miles north were invading the west side of Papua New Guinea, which is called Irian Jaya. Photographing the people there was a real experience. I was told if you buy a couple pigs and donated to the village they would invite you with open arms. In fact, that's what I did. I had a budget of three hundred dollars to buy two big pigs, which is for them, it was like the time to feast. And so they would roast the pigs. You know, it's just from growing up in an economically suppressed community after post World War Two, we never had money. Our vacations were largely going to the Cascades and putting up a tent along the creek. We never went to Hollywood or Disney Land. We never traveled. It was always locally, so to have the ability to go all around the world was an amazing opportunity and gift. And I never, ever traveled or overlooked that fact that I'd been so lucky in my life. Even back then, photographing these people with these big pink tusks coming out of their nostrils, and photographing the adornment of the people. It led to yet a different book a couple years later called "Tribes." But even back then, I could see that near the small landing strip in the mountains of New Guinea, Western culture, Western clothing was creeping into these villages, which is in fact exactly what I was trying to document the tribes, the cultures, the history of them before it would be invaded by Western culture. Now I'm sure, and I've not been back, that those very people that I photographed in those villages, would all be wearing tee shirts or baseball hats. And it's not that it's really changed their culture but they just simply look different. I always have thought in the back of my mind that I do want to have a body of work that recorded the people as they lived. And it's not any different than Edward Curtis did a hundred years before. We look at him with great value now because he did in fact record the last of the first nation's cultures as they lived historically. So into the Amazon I went. And years later I started working on more books where tribes and cultures were becoming more and more part of my subjects that I would cultivate. And, yeah, in my lifetime, I've seen an amazing amount of things that would actually be disturbing for some people, but this is my life. So you know, seeing people taking drugs, this is a Shaman on the right. He's receiving a hallucinogenic drug derived from the bushes. And for the next hour, fluids were coming out of his eyes, his nose, his mouth. And then they turned to me and said, you want some? It's like, you know, I'm already having a hard time focusing the photos I got. I don't need any extra work on that. I think this little girl laying in a mountain stream in the jungles of Venezuela, and that gaze towards me, there was no verbal communication. But in many ways, you're looking into her eyes. And I'm thinking to myself, what will her future be like. I think the Venezuelan government has really done a great job on isolating these people and keeping tourism out for the most part. It took me two or three months to negotiate with the Venezuelan government. To gain access I had to bring in a cultural anthropologist that knew the tribe. And so we did everything right. And when we leave a really remote village like this, we don't leave anything behind. We don't leave tee shirts or gifts that would overtly say that we've already been there. We just don't do that. I don't want anybody to know I was there. I want to accelerate the change of their lives. Down river, down into the lower Amazon in the country of Brazil, the Kayapo people wearing headdresses of Macaw feathers. They would raise Macaws in their village and harvest the feathers as they molt. So it was a sustainable source of feathers, which are part of the culture. He's wearing a necklace of claws from a bear. The main thing I want to say, and why I'm giving this lecture, is the world's changing. We all know that. It's changing too fast for most of us. But the lip disc worn by the Kayapo elders was part of their history, their traditions. It was meant to scare their adversaries, because these are warrior class people. They're hunters and gatherers. That means that they go out into the forest and harvest food for their lives, but they would be in an adversarial role to the people that live over the next valley. And so that as a tradition really developed within the Kayapo. But all the young men in the tribe, and this is looking back now 20 years, or 25 years, they were no longer adopting that tradition, which was hard on the body. I saw, back then, I can imagine it's always evolving. Every culture on earth is constantly evolving forward. There are modern human beings that live more in a technologically primitive culture. And that's always something I keep in the back of my mind. Regardless of the tribe or the village or the people I'm visiting, they are modern sophisticated human beings first and foremost. So you can communicate on that level. It's really funny to that extent is many of them leap frogged ahead of America because they had cell phones way more sophisticated than I do. Not the ones in the Amazon, but as I've traveled all over the earth, they pick up a phone and they can communicate where we're still kind of tied to those old landlines. Cell phones are catching up, but they were really fast forward ahead of us. In New Guinea, there's a thing called the Sing Sing where people gather and historically they would fight each other and today it's a competition of who has the most elaborate dress. And the dress is generally derived from the elements of the cultures around them. So as you look at these photos, keep in mind the kind of photos I'm shooting. I'm shooting candidly. I'm shooting portraits. If there's something like a shaman receiving a drug or predicting the future of the tribe, I'm gonna try to get that. I shoot a broad range of subjects. When I was in New Guinea 22 years ago, I photographed what I was just referring to as the black and white men. That's how they were adorning themselves. As I went back a couple years ago for "Tails by Light," which is on NetFlix as you know. Look at how their culture has changed. Now they have their whole design of that tribe now has morphed into skeleton people. So nothing stays the same. And if you have that in the back of your mind, you're never disappointed. In fact, I'm quite happy with the way this tribe has adorned themselves. Given the fact that they were skeleton people, I put them behind the smoke of a fire and started playing to that mysteriousness that I was feeling at the time I was photographing them. And then I started playing with positive and negative space, which I'll mention in the third lecture of today. So there's three different ways of looking at them: cultural portraits, within the context of the mood of their costume or their decor. And then playing with the positive abstract. I'm abstracting their culture. So three different styles of the same people. Historically I have photographed the Huli Wigmen like that. I'm starting to use drones to abstract their culture. So not only are these cultures changing, I'm changing. I'm changing with the times, with the technology. I'm taking advantage of the times we live in. Get that? Yeah, I'm taking advantage of the times we live in. Some people come up to me and say, oh you've lived in the great days of photography. Is there any subjects left? There's so many subjects because we were limited on how we could record a subject. Now we have cameras and technology that were only a dream 10, 15 years ago. And today we can execute photos I could never have gotten in the past. When I first went to the Mudmen of New Guinea, they had these masks made out of clay, which is historically their thing. And they had little holes for eyes, and little holes for mouth. And when I went back they really had elaborate, I'm gonna pass through this. The mudmen had amazing eyebrows and tusks and designs in their mouth. So again and again every time I turned around, there was a new culture from the old. Just evolving forward. One of the books as I travel I'm developing and won't see the light of day. Most people don't realize how many years I work on a book. It could be nine years before the book actually comes out. So I never want to rush a book to production. I don't want it to ever be less than what it could be. And so a book called "An Act of Faith" is looking at the world's big religions. You know, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the whole nine yards. What would make the book interesting, is all the tribal religions. You know the Shamans, the voodoo cultures. That will give context to this body of work. I'm just gonna show you that when you're working around religions, you have to be culturally sensitive to the customs of the religions. That goes hand in hand with just educating yourself before you ever leave. I do a lot of research. I've had now 40 years of experience, and there are certain things. If you go into a monastery, if you're given or granted access to a monastery, you take your shoes off. You stay lower than the monks that are chanting and recanting prayers. And you try to be as invisible and as undisruptive as possible. And that photo there exemplifies that. Sliding across the floor quietly. And all of the monks are there theoretically doing their prayers. They're kind of watching you. They know you're there. But you just don't wanna create a riot in the middle of a monastery. And these are lifelong memories to be granted access in the mountains of Bhutan to a prayer session is a great gift. Something that will be with me until the end of my life. This is yet another religious festival that happens in the middle of winter in Japan. It's called the Naked Man Festival. All these guys are kind of high on saki and other alcohol. It's the middle of the night. It's freezing. It's in the month of January. They are trying to grab a wooden phallus and the whole idea is if they can grab this phallus they get luck for their whole family for a whole year to come. But if any of those people see who's got that and they touch that guy, they get good luck and hence, it becomes a riot, which is really epic to photograph. One of the world's largest Mosques in Jakarta Indonesia, there's a prayer session. And again, gaining access and permissions is part of the endeavor. And you know, I want everybody, all these... I'm not particularly religious, but I really love religion simply because religions uphold traditions, which is half of what I shoot. So I want to be around these different religions and photograph them, not in a traditional way, but still playing to the art of it. As I said earlier, my background's art. I took a lot of design, a lot of graphic design, so that informs my work. That's kind of the skeleton with which a lot of my photos lie. And so patterns, textures, shapes, all those kind of things come into play when I'm photographing people. And then there's the more traditional views of people in their religions. And I think this one really resonates with me because I love photographing in Buddhist countries. The Buddhists are so nonchalant. If I want to photograph them, they just say go ahead. We don't care. And so there's less issues within the Buddhist culture. These young boys were in a prayer session late at night in a monastery. So all these little photos will play into it. And normally when I travel, there may be two or three projects I'm shooting for. But if there's a compelling image, I'm gonna shoot it because someday he will find it's way into a book. Why this is important, and why I want to get it across. In today's world of books and book publishing, it's very rare that you would have the financial backing to do a book. It's a different era in book publishing. Fewer book titles are being produced. And if a book publisher wants to pitch a book to you and you sign a contract, rarely would they give you an advance that would cover, especially on an international book, the advance would cover half the plane flight on the first trip. So many of these books are multiple trips over multiple years, and the only way it works is if I'm shooting five or six projects at once. And so there's a lot of things I can't do well, but one of the things that I do well is compartmentalize projects in my mind. I can be photographing a big scene of a market for one moment, and turn around and shoot a portrait for yet a different project or maybe a dog's walking on the street. I'll grab that shot. So I can see all these different usages for photos. And it actually makes financial sense to come away with three or four books being processed at the same time. And then there's photos like this that are long exposures that are trying to bring in the element of art to the subject. Because I just don't want it to be a traditional looking book. I've got a lot of books. In fact, in west Seattle I have a library, and the library's as big as Barnes and Noble. You know, there's so many titles in the book. And I rely on those books for studying. I love books. I love the whole sitting down with a glass of wine looking through a well crafted book is one of my joys of life. One of the reasons I've done over a hundred books is that I'm so invested in books. And I love this shot by the way because it was a Shinto priest up in the mountains of Japan. And Shintoism is just a form of Buddhism. When he was sweeping snow off the walkway into the monastery, and I thought, oh don't look up. Don't look up. Because if he looks up he's gonna disappear. He looked up. Saw I was taking his picture. Then just went back to sweeping. I love Buddhists. You know, they're so chilled out.

Class Description

Photography is more than just a click of the shutter as it can create a statement or evoke a feeling and thus becomes a powerful art form. Internationally acclaimed photographer, artist and educator Art Wolfe joins CreativeLive to teach creative professionals how to see and make art in exciting new ways. 

In this class Art will share:

  • How to maximize photographic opportunities while traveling to unique and beautiful photographic destinations.
  • The best ways to take those special images efficiently. 
  • His favorite technological advances and how he uses them to enhance his creative vision. 
As a special segment, Art will preview how knowledge of art history provides a creative foundation and show students how to apply these principles to enhance their own compositions. He will also include a live critique of student images and, using Adobe® Lightroom® CC, will guide students through the editing process to transform the images into stronger artistic statements.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Art Wolfe eBook Bonus Material

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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Thank you, Art Wolfe and Creative Live for this outstanding and astounding invitation to open my eyes and mind to a new way of thinking based on classic elements of design. This set of video lectures is a rich feast for the brain and heart willing to consider change. Art explains the elements of design such as texture, line, etc., and then shows how he has applied those basic principles. He explores metaphor, ambiguity, graphic design and negative/positive space--all with eye-popping examples. Wolfe takes us through the galleries of the Impressionists, Abstractionists, and Pop Artists to show how visiting our local art museums with a photographers eye can teach us to see in new ways. I love the way he shows, for example, a Mondrian or a Jackson Pollack or a Hokusai painting and then segues beautifully into examples of his own work inspired by those greats. Never does Art lose sight of the mission he has in this series, which is to inspire serious-hearted photographers to rise to new visual heights in their own work. He has a way of seeming to say, "Look. If I can do it, you can do it. Here are my secrets--let me break them down for you." To me, it was a privilege to take this class--my brain is exploding, and I'm itching to get out and shoot! Thank you so much, Art Wolfe and the Creative Live team--you are both amazing! Sandy Brown Jensen Eugene, Oregon

JIll C.

After watching Art Wolfe's presentation for just a short while, I have an almost irresistible urge to pick up my camera and get out into the world to look for the abstracts that can make stunning images. His body of work is simply stunning, and his verbal patter is mesmerizing. He proposes to find beauty in decay, and to train our eyes to see what others overlook. This is not a technical class, and there is no discussion of gear or camera settings. I found it very inspiring, and his ideas will surely help me to overcome the lethargy that has overcome my photography hobby.


Wonderful lecture with tips and tricks of how he shoots, what gear he uses, suggestions for comp, and samples of how he processes a RAW file in LR. Art was just as awesome as I had heard he was in person. I'm a professional photographer and definitely came away with many new tips, perspectives and inspiration to see your image differently and to look closer at the less obvious scene. Thank you Art for sharing your talent, its so very much appreciated!!