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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Earth & Sky

Shooting at the edges of the day, Art Wolfe pursues an ongoing photographic quest to unite the heavens and the landscape

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Art Wolfe The result of a previsualized idea, Wolfe had to imagine how an eight-hour exposure of star trails juxtaposed against the landscape of a Namibian desert would look—and he had to do it in the afternoon light.
Art Wolfe has made a career of photographing at the margins. Whether it’s documenting disappearing rain forests or the customs of tribes around the world, Wolfe finds fertile creative soil in these overlooked places. One of his favorite rare landscapes is found by looking upward, deep into the night sky, well beyond the bounds of earth.

“I love trying to elicit emotions out of people and make them feel some sort of impact,” Wolfe explains. “We see a lot of bright, sunny photos, even beautiful mountains and dramatic light. But with this body of work, I was trying to connect the heavens to the earth. That was the mission.”

Wolfe has found a way to visually connect our little planet to the galaxy beyond. Unlike straight astral photography, though, his work is all about context. Conveying these otherworldly events—moonrises and star trails and the aurora borealis—would be interesting in any case. But when Wolfe sets them against the recognizable environment of the earth, suddenly the context for the stars—and our place within them—becomes clear.

Art Wolfe
Palm trees in Bora Bora frame the foreground and lead the eye to the moon, which, though smaller, becomes the actual subject of the image.
“One of the intentional perspectives that I try to incorporate is to make people feel that they’re standing next to me,” says Wolfe. “I want the ultimate viewer to feel a connection and the power of the moment. I want to bring people in and make them feel that connection. And when you look at the work that I’m talking about, the only way I could have done that was to incorporate a perspective that made people understand that, okay, we see an agave in the foreground, we know where Art was standing when he took that shot. It connects them a little better to the moment, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.”

Though he always has pushed boundaries with his photography, Wolfe says his desire to photograph beyond the earth simply stems from a need to keep challenging himself. After decades photographing the natural world, it can be easy to feel like you’ve seen it all.

“I started in Seattle as a photographer in the late 1970s,” he explains, “and I photographed everything that was in the environment—from wood ducks to elk to mountains and streams and all that. But 30 years later, if I was still doing that same work, I think I probably would have retired and gone back to doing something else. I’ve always tried to evolve in my work, and it continues to this day. I’m shooting subjects that I didn’t shoot five years ago, just to keep relevant and interested and moving forward. This body of work was something that I hadn’t done to an extent at the time when I was working on the book.”

The book is 2003’s Edge of the Earth, Corner of The Sky, for which Wolfe spent a considerable amount of time peering through a camera at nighttime skies. He sometimes finds himself on assignment in a location that may be fortuitously conducive to this type of photography, but for the most part these unique images are the result of significant planning and effort before the camera is even out of the bag.


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