Part two of a three-part series. Read part one 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: You have travelled all over the world – is it a case of when you start you can’t stop?
AW: That has certainly been true for me. I was on the first western expedition on Everest, allowed in through Tibet in 1984. It was on that trip that I took my very first cultural shots and I can remember clearly how I felt in those moments. The images had a timeless quality to them. I was photographing culture, tradition and rituals that had been alive and well for centuries. I then began chasing my childhood imagination, spurred on by old black and white television adventure shows. I travelled all over the world photographing not only the animals and landscapes, which until that time had defined my brand as a photographer, but cultures and traditions as well. I was hooked. Even today at over 60 years old, I am still traveling nine to 10 months out of the year and still loving it.
GC: What subjects are you most attracted to as a photographer?
AW: As with any artist, my passions and visions have evolved and changed over the years. Early in my career, I was photographing wildlife with that bulls-eye mentality. A sharp portrait, head and shoulders of the animal - what I call ‘trophy shots’ today. An early book of mine, The Kingdom, illustrates this style.
Over time my aesthetic evolved to include more of the surroundings of the animal, giving them a greater sense of place. The Living Wild book has that cinematic lens approach where much of the book was photographed through a wide-angle lens. Over the course of nine years I photographed animals hiding them in plain sight, allowing their natural camouflage to blend into their surroundings, resulting in my book Vanishing Act.
My book Tribes, meanwhile, captures the cultures and traditions that have been a favourite of mine ever since those first encounters in Lasa and high up on Mt. Everest. As with most artists - masters and contemporary alike - I find myself drawn more and more to abstract compositions the older I get.
Rippled reflections on water, long exposures, or just finding meaning out of chaos and detritus; seeing Japanese calligraphy in reeds poking up through the water, or finding patterns in the rusted box-cars parked in Seattle. I love finding the shots that most people would simply walk past and never see.
GC: Your passion for indigenous cultures has brought you to discover the edge of civilisation – what can you tell us about that?
AW: I love photographing indigenous cultures. The world is changing so fast. In just my lifetime I have seen cultures in Papua New Guinea transition from [wearing] their traditional penis gourds [also known as sheaths] to baseball caps and t-shirts. It is important that we have a record of these vanishing cultures and photography provides that means. I am proud to have in my archives images that simply can not be replicated today because so much has changed in the intervening time.
Whenever I am working with an indigenous culture I am very careful not to introduce anything new. I never leave behind t-shirts or baseball caps as others have done. I will, however, ask around and find out what they do value - what they might serve for a feast or celebration in the village, for example. In the case of a tribe in Papua New Guinea some years ago, it was a pig roast. So for about 80 [US] dollars, I purchased two pigs to offer the community as a gesture of friendship and goodwill.
I was welcomed into their homes and lives for the next several days as the gesture was much appreciated. Money would have meant very little to them at that time as they simply did not have a use for it, but pigs, a traditional and treasured food for them, went a long way. When I am working with remote cultures I am never setting out to exploit them - I am looking to show the resilience of the human spirit, not poverty and oppression. I always ask permission when I photograph someone, and I believe my body language is able to convey my genuine intent. I am rarely turned down and when I am, I will respect their wishes and move on. Ultimately I have learned over my years of travel and countless trips around the earth that we are all one people at heart. We are no different from each other; all human, with differences in our skin colour and appearance that simply come from where we happen to have been born, nothing more.
Words: Giulia Catani
Photography: Art Wolfe