Part three of a three-part series. 

Read part one here and part two here.

Boasting an intensive background of travels and documentary, American photographer Art Wolfe is hugely revered across the world for the work he produces. Speaking with PETRIe Contributor, Giulia Catani, in this three-part series, Art Wolfe shares his passions, his works and his curiosity for the world.

GC: Where did the idea behind the project ‘Human Canvas’ come from?

AW: The ‘Human Canvas’ project is one that has been germinating in my mind for about 25 years or more. I first photographed a ceremony in the highlands of Papua New Guinea where a group of Simbu dancers had applied black-and-white pigment to their skin, splitting their bodies in half down the middle. That was perhaps the first seed for what would later grow into this body of work. 

Pigment Study 08

It was later on during my work on Tribes, where again I photographed cultures adorning themselves in clay and pigments - notably the people of the Surma tribe in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia. The designs and patterns they worked over their bodies in clay from the river were fantastic. All of these influences can be seen in the ‘Human Canvas’ project and I even managed to get back in the field with my high-definition cameras and lights to photograph the Surma people in person for the project.

Pigment Study 42

Pigment Study 42

You'll also see influences from my work with animals camouflaging themselves in nature, allowing the subject to disappear and blend in with the surroundings. I can not deny my roots as a fine art painter either - MC Escher influences as well as Jackson Pollack, Marcus Toby and many others are strongly evident in the work too.

People the world over have a strong need for art in their lives - we adorn the walls of our homes with art work, paintings and photographs. Where we didn’t have homes, we turned to the rocks, cliff faces and walls of caves as a canvas to paint on. And where people don’t have either, they turn to their own bodies as a canvas to express their art and individuality.

Clay Study 14

GC: And how about the inspiration for the title? 

AW: The idea for the title came to me early on in the process. People the world over have a strong need for art in their lives - we adorn the walls of our homes with art work, paintings and photographs. Where we didn't have homes, we turned to the rocks, cliff faces and walls of caves as a canvas to paint on. And where people don't have either, they turn to their own bodies as a canvas to express their art and individuality. So it was this notion of people turning to their own bodies as a canvas for their art form that I drew inspiration from for the title of this work.

Pigment Study 61

I have been bluff-charged by many animals, notably a mountain gorilla reminding me who’s jungle I was in with a gentle nudge that sent me flying head over heels down the hillside.

GC: Have you ever been scared during your explorations or found yourself in a dangerous situation? 

AW: You can't travel the world photographing wildlife for decades and not run into trouble from time-to-time. I am always very respectful of the animals I am photographing and with very few exceptions, I never try and sneak up on them or hide my approach. But that said, every now and then, one will get startled or react unpredictably. I have been bluff-charged by many animals, notably a mountain gorilla reminding me who's jungle I was in with a gentle nudge that sent me flying head over heels down the hillside. And a not-so-bluff charge by a rhino that had me taking cover in the exposed roots of a large tree, fearing for my life. 

It was riding as a passenger in a small single-engine airplane in Venezuela, flying VFR or Visual Flight Rules, when we ‘accidentally’ went into a cloud only to come back out staring straight at a vertical cliff, so close I felt like it would certainly be the last thing on earth I would touch.

But it was riding as a passenger in a small single-engine airplane in Venezuela, flying VFR or Visual Flight Rules, when we ‘accidentally’ went into a cloud only to come back out staring straight at a vertical cliff, so close I felt like it would certainly be the last thing on earth I would touch. It was only the reaction of the pilot (I avoid the word skill, considering he got us into the situation to begin with), and the strong updrafts flowing from the base of the cliff, that saved our lives.

The digital technology we use today has so surpassed that of even the best professional slide film that I set out on a several year odyssey retracing my steps to capture old favourites, reaching out to new landscapes and new subjects, travelling the world producing some of my favourite and best images of my career.

GC: What has been your favourite project to date and why?

AW: A few years ago, I was approached by a book publisher offering to do my Magnum Opus. When I figured out he didn't mean a retrospective (I'm not dead yet and intend to be still producing images for many years to come), I agreed. I went back into my archives and began pulling the best and most favourite images from the past 40 years and I was surprised that they didn't hold up to my memories. 

Buddhist Novices, Mahagandayon Monastery, Myanmar

Buddhist Novices, Mahagandayon Monastery, Myanmar

The digital technology we use today has so surpassed that of even the best professional slide film that I set out on a several year odyssey retracing my steps to capture old favourites, reaching out to new landscapes and new subjects, travelling the world producing some of my favourite and best images of my career.

Waterbearers, Thar Desert, Rajastan, India

Waterbearers, Thar Desert, Rajastan, India

Many of the images that made the final cut for the book, Earth is my Witness, were taken from the archives as they simply can not be recreated today, but the majority were new. The world is constantly changing; traditions and cultures change as well as landscapes and animals. 

Tuareg Tribesmen, Mali

Tuareg Tribesmen, Mali

It was a fantastic journey that resulted in the absolute favourite book of my career and energised me with more book ideas, refuelling my passion for another 40 years should I be so blessed to still be taking pictures at 100.

Ultimately all the elements had to come together, the birds had to settle down and get used to me, the light had to be just right and I had to figure out just how to work with the lantern light to get the effect I was looking for.

GC: And what is your favourite image that you have ever shot?

AW: The book Earth is my Witness is a tribute to my favourite images and for the cover, I chose The Night Fishermen. I love this timeless look at a traditional method of fishing along the Li River in Guangxi, China. The image is timeless as the tradition of training cormorants to catch fish attracted to the lights of their lanterns has changed so little over the years. This is a tradition unique to the Guangxi in south-central China and had I been here a century before, the lanterns may have been different but little else has changed. This was also a fun and challenging image to capture. 

Earth is My Witness

Using a digital camera, I was able to immediately rule out using a flash to stop the motion of the restless birds and it was only as the sun set and the light balanced between the foreground and background that I was able to get what I had visualised beforehand. Ultimately all the elements had to come together, the birds had to settle down and get used to me, the light had to be just right and I had to figure out just how to work with the lantern light to get the effect I was looking for. It all eventually worked and it has become one of my favourite images. For the others, you'll have to see the book.

I’ve not visited some of the most obvious locations, such as the pyramids in Egypt. They have been photographed so many times by so many people that I never felt the need to photograph them myself.

GC: Lastly, where would you like to travel next?

AW: There are many locations around the world that I would still like to see first-hand. Many people are surprised to know I've not visited some of the most obvious locations, such as the pyramids in Egypt. They have been photographed so many times by so many people that I never felt the need to photograph them myself, but I would still like to visit them some day. 

The next new destination that I have planned in my itinerary is Oman. I was fortunate to meet a man through Facebook, and we have managed to strike up a friendship; he has agreed to host me coming to his country where I will offer my "Art of Composition" seminar as well as tour and photograph the area while I am there. I am very excited; it is a destination that has been on my list for some time but one I'd never managed to get to.

Art Wolfe has published multiple books including Indian Baskets of the Northwest Coast, The High Himalaya, Water: Worlds between Heaven & Earth, Tribes, Rainforests of the World, Pacific Northwest, Land of Light and Water. He has had four major shows at Seattle’s "Frye Art Museum" and today his work is available at the "Art Wolfe Gallery" in Seattle, "Rotella Galleri" in Las Vegas and New York City, as well as online at www.artwolfe.com.

Words: Giulia Catani

Photography: Art Wolfe