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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On The Edge


Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge series on public television has brought the intrepid nature photographer to some of the most rare and exotic places and cultures in the world

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on the edge
Elephant seal pups toy with Art Wolfe and his camera, South Georgia Island in the Atlantic Ocean.
I began exploring the world as a kid in West Seattle, mounting expeditions into the woods behind my parents’ house. Even then, I wanted to keep going, to see what was over the next ridge or beyond Puget Sound. Later, camera in hand, I devoted myself to climbing in the North Cascades.

My life changed when I was invited to be the photographer for the Ultima Thule Expedition to the Tibetan side of Mount Everest in 1984, years before the mountain was tamed by commercial guides and lattes became available at base camp. I encountered people who had never seen Westerners before, photographed mountains of incomprehensible scale, caught glimpses of rare wildlife. I resolved to spend my life wandering the planet to capture images of the wild world.

When I decided to expand my brief to include television as well as stills, Travels to the Edge was born. I thought my experience as a photographer would hold me in good stead, but I discovered I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Let me share some lessons I’ve learned.

on the edge
Buddhist monks meditate in ceremonial garb.
What’s Happening?
We seldom speak the local language. It’s easy to offend without knowing it. In southeastern Asia, it’s rude to show the bottom of your feet. In other places the OK sign means…something else. Some events remain a mystery.

We visited a Surma tribe in the wilds of Ethiopia. Members of neighboring tribes engage in ritualized stick fighting called donga. Participants can end up bloody, broken or dead as they demonstrate their manhood for all to see. Alcohol plays a role. It’s sort of like a football game, with similar passions being raised. Ethiopian regular soldiers armed with AK-47s maintain order. We shot the action, and as it subsided, our handlers hustled us off the field of battle like heads of state under attack and shoved us into our vehicles. We never knew what threat, if any, they saw.

I know this sounds like whining, and I’m very good at that when called upon, but the benefits far outweigh the trials. The universe rewards our attention and our faith with magic moments, and we’ve experienced more than our share of arresting landscapes, wildlife and people.

on the edge
The Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains in the difficult weather of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap in South America.
On a rocky prominence in Patagonia, we hiked hoping to photograph a condor but found only empty sky. Then, at the summit, one condor and another and another soared around us, circling, passing close enough for us to hear their wings tearing the air, the sound of ripping cloth. Later, on the same trip, we hiked and skied to the west side of Cerro Torre on the Patagonian Ice Cap. Patagonia is renowned for brutal weather, and even in fine weather, clouds build up in the afternoon. On our only day in position, we were blessed with pink light on the high, snow-fringed peaks. Within days, 100-mile-an-hour winds would scour the ice cap, and snow would stream off the spires like vapor trails, but we were granted that moment.

On South Georgia Island, my favorite location on the planet, I was photographing elephant seal pups inches from my wide-angle lens. I had to wipe away nose prints. One affectionate fellow crawled up on my back uninvited, assuming a position that could be used as evidence in a divorce proceeding as I spoke to our cameraman.

Another Ethiopian tribe, the Karo, dance after sunset during a harvest festival. We didn’t get the best footage, but after shooting, I downloaded the images to my computer and ran an impromptu slideshow. All the children in the village crowed around me, eager to see themselves on the screen. Except for the unfamiliar patter, I could have been with a group of kids anywhere in the world.

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