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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
In order to capture a desert solar eclipse, Wolfe journeyed to the wilds of Australia to catch the sun eclipsing at the lowest possible point on the horizon.
“It’s not like you’re just going to walk out the door and shoot that,” Wolfe says of a total eclipse. “You have to get yourself into position and do a lot of work. I flew halfway around the world to Australia and then out into the desert. It had to be the right total eclipse in the sense that most eclipses that you’ve seen are very tight shots of the eclipse without the context of being connected to the earth. Most of the time they occur very high in the sky; this particular one occurred 40 minutes before sunset, which meant it was very low to the horizon, which enabled me then to incorporate trees in the foreground. And that’s an unusual perspective—to see it within the context of an earthly element.

“The eclipse in Australia,” he continues, “was an attraction simply because it was occurring in the desert, so I had a reasonable chance of a clear night, and it was low to the horizon and that was unusual. So, yeah, I flew all the way to Australia for that one shot. Some are well thought out. The aurora was a flight to Fairbanks, getting in a truck with some biologists and driving eight hours north into the Brooks Range. That was specifically to do that. Others are serendipity—okay, we’re here, we have a clear night, I didn’t know the moon would be full, let’s see what we can do with it.”

Wolfe has made these compelling photographs all over the planet. The consistent link to the locations, he says, is clean air and clear skies.

“I have the most luck where I get this consistency of clear evenings,” he says. “Desert environments, dry air, clear nights, away from major metropolitan areas where the air is somewhat compromised by the pollutants—those places are dynamite. I’ve been to places in the Sahara or Namibia or Madagascar, where, when the stars are out—especially toward the equator where the Milky Way is directly above you—you literally cast shadows from the stars.”

Because these otherworldly elements are in fact moving, photographing them, particularly in context with the earth, presents many challenges. But for photographers willing to put in the time and effort to master the techniques, it also can lead to amazing opportunities. Like the time Wolfe made an all-night double-exposure to create rotational star trails against the landscape of a Namibian desert.

Art Wolfe
The moon beneath a delicate arch, Utah
“That’s an eight-hour exposure,” Wolfe says of the striking image, “and it’s probably the most difficult photo of the body to execute. It’s something that I previsualized before I went to Africa; I wanted to try to pull it off. I photographed the first exposure hoping that I was getting the Southern Cross in the image, and I had no way of verifying because the first one was in the late afternoon; there were no stars out. I darkened the sky with both a polarizer and a neutral-density filter, and then I intentionally underexposed the image by at least one stop. This was predigital, so there was no verification. I tried to make the sky as black as possible and see the red sand dune and the foreground. If you looked at the first exposure, it would look like an underexposed image—dark and gray, but you’d still have enough of the trees and the sand dunes in the foreground.

“The second exposure, then, was programmed in the back of the Canon,” he continues, “because I couldn’t stand there and execute it. You’re not allowed to stay at this place overnight. We had the camera timed so that it would open up again a good hour and a half after the last light of the sky would have left. And then we calculated when the sunrise would be, and we had the exposure turn off a good hour before sunrise so that there was no chance the ambient light of the sunrise or the sunset would affect the exposure. Then we came back to the camera the next day hoping everything worked, and all I could do to verify something happened was look at the film counter and it had indeed advanced. So it was a month and a half later that I got home, had the film processed and found that one exposure. Would you believe I had, like, 400 rolls of film, and I think it was about the 390th roll where I finally found that photo?”


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