Economy of Sight

Sky-gazing with the king of nature photography.

When I arrive at Art Wolfe's spacious waterfront West Seattle home, gray clouds hang over the Olympics and the Vashon Island ferry is busy passing citizens from one shore to the other. The shades of blue and gray and green can barely distinguish themselves from one another, but the world-renowned nature photographer is optimistic.

"I think we'll probably see a sun break within the hour, there will probably be one more wave of rain, and then the sun will set," he predicts. "This bathing of light and rain and cloudsit's really invigorating."

Because Wolfe has made a name for himself by traveling to the outer reaches of all seven continents and allowing the conditions to cast themselves just so over this mountain range or that expansive plain, he has, over the years, gained a critical understanding of the weather.

"I don't know what other people do," he says, "but when I'm driving or when I'm at home, I'm watching the weather. It's part of the occupation, part of the lifestyle. You're watching and reading the clouds and the sun. I spent 20 years climbing, and through basic mountaineering, I've learned that if you lose your way, the minute you perceive that you're lost, backtrack, don't go any further. Go back from where you came."

The second lesson gleaned from mountaineering is as important to Wolfe's lifestyle as the first is to his photography. Born just a mile and a half from his current home, in the old West Seattle General that has since been torn down and replaced with retail stores, Wolfe has been a citizen of this end of the city for his entire life. And as his business requires that he frequently hop a plane for the Andes or spend three weeks in the desert, he says his home base is more sacred now than ever.

A natural explorer, avid climber, and student of the arts from a very young age, Wolfe broke into professional photography when the National Audubon Society's magazine commissioned him to take images of Olympic National Park in the late '70s. He's since continued to document the geography, terrain, peoples, and animals of the earth with large format, vividly rendered images. Ninety-seven of these pictures, taken all over the world, will be on view at the Frye Art Museum starting Saturday, May 3 in an exhibition called "One World, One Vision."

In his collection, a strikingly textured close-up of an Amazonian tribesman is as common as a dizzying herd of zebra or a glowing moon doting the "i" of a sharp mountain peak. Just as Annie Leibovitz is famous for her photographs of celebrities, Ansel Adams for his formal black-and-white landscapes, and William Wegman for his weimaraners, the name Art Wolfe is all but synonymous with nature photography. An entire department of the REI store is devoted to his books, posters, prints, and videos; he teaches his workshops in the outdoors; and all 50 of his photography books have the natural world as their theme. The earth and its environments are Wolfe's subjects, and capturing them sensuously is his style. He's hesitant to describe this trademark approach, but he'll concede that he strives to make crisp, straightforward images.

"Whether it's cultural tribes or landscapes or wildlife, I try to make it very clean and strong," he says of his pictures. "Even if it's a very complex tapestry, it's still a clean, complex tapestry. There aren't a lot of extraneous details. There's no confusion. You look through a body of my work, whether you like it or not, there's no doubt about what the picture is about."

Outside, just as he predicted, the sun is showing signs of breaking through. I ask the photographer what would happen if we both went out on his deck with our cameras in hand. If I aim for the aesthetic he describes, can I get an Art Wolfe-style shot?

The blanket of clouds is still casting a rather uninteresting pallorand aside from that, the view from one's living room ceases to be altogether fascinating after a certain time, so while Wolfe predicts that I would go out and immediately start shooting, he says he wouldn't take a single photograph.

"I don't see a shot," says Wolfe.

But when I press him on my hypothetical experiment, he politely concedes and runs through a list of polarizers, filters, and exposure settings that would brighten the blue of the water, quiet the gloomy clouds, and balance the dull light. So I suppose I have my answer: In order to describe the natural world with vivid images, you've got to know when to shoot and when not to. Wolfe calls this an "economy of time," and it's as important a skill as knowing how to balance the light, as important as knowing how to balance life in general.

"I think I have a perfect balance. I do like the business end of it. I like that I employ 12 people," says Wolfe. "But also, when I'm out in the forest or the deserts, wherever I am, that doesn't feel like work. I would do it anyway, whether I was making a living at it or not. That hasn't changed. That hasn't changed in 30 years. The very last pictures I took were aerials over the Colorado estuary as it enters the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. I was just as excited to see those results as I was 30 years ago looking at my first results. That excitement of seeing has never diminished."

Art Wolfe will give a lecture at the Frye at 2 p.m. Sat., May 3.

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