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Earth Is My Witness
“The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise…then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.”
—Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Buddhist philosopher
It’s said that in the moments before Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained ultimate enlightenment, he reached down and touched the earth. “The earth is my witness,” he said, and with that, he became the Buddha. His awakening was directly linked to nature, so it’s fitting that one of the most prolific and enlightened photographers of our world, Art Wolfe, would choose Buddha’s words to caption his life’s work.
With his new book Earth Is My Witness, Wolfe has created a magnum opus cataloging his life in photography. It’s an attempt to encapsulate nearly 40 years of prolific output, from all around the world, into a single volume. It’s the definitive publication about the artist, but it’s in no way a suggestion that his career is coming to an end.
“I’ve got a lot of energy and years ahead,” Wolfe says. “When I was in my 30s, there was a lot of time I was hiking and climbing and calling up friends, figuring out what we would do. In my 40s, it was less that, but still a lot of time to schedule impromptu trips. In my 50s, it all tightened up, and now it’s just crazy. There’s no free time, but there’s no downtime. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really do well with downtime. I like to stay busy, so I’ve got about three or four projects coming up—books, TV production—a lot of things are in the works. Slowing down isn’t part of my vernacular.”
Art Wolfe’s “Earth Is My Witness” is the product of experiences that began decades ago. Wolfe says, “In 1969, when man looked back from the moon to the earth, that single image has stuck in my mind. And it kind of spurred me on to look at projects from a global perspective. Most of my books, whether it’s 55 or 65, whatever it might be, it looks at the earth as a whole. There have been some regional books, but most of my books have been from a world perspective. Cultures, wildlife, landscape—they have been a global perspective. So I think it’s really fitting that this book really encompasses so much of my favorite moments.”
Adds Wolfe, “If somebody has never bought one of my books, but they’re now considering it, this is the one to buy. It covers so much ground, and I think it’s a bargain for the price.”
At 400 pages with nearly 500 pictures, Earth Is My Witness is substantial enough to delve deeply into Wolfe’s archive of images from his many book projects, as well as assignments for National Geographic, Smithsonian and Audubon. Interestingly, rather than simply dust off old slides and reminisce about their creation, Wolfe saw old work through fresh eyes and had a difficult decision to make. Could he publish images from the film era that, to digital eyes, no longer measured up?
“I thought, ‘That’s great, I won’t have to do much work,'” Wolfe says of the book’s origin. “But I went back and I looked at my archive and started pulling out my most iconic images from the film era. It was brutally eye-opening. The film didn’t stand up. It just looked horrible compared to the latest digital images. Most of the chromes are as I shot them, but they were gray. Taking an old, gray, drab photograph from Everest in 1984, and opening up the shadows a little bit, and having the ability to do that, really amazed me. To take a gray, old photo and revitalize it through the digital process was like rebirthing something. I love that.”
Wolfe continues, “We all got accustomed to looking at Kodachrome and thinking that was reality. When Velvia came on and captured the cleanness and the distinction of color, everybody thought it was over the top. But, in fact, I think our expectations were always that everything should be a little less than reality. That’s my opinion about color. I don’t think Kodachrome was that brilliant of a film. It was a sharp film, it was the best of what we had, but things evolve. When Fuji first came out, it did seem really garish. By the time Velvia came out, I think it had been properly dialed in, and that’s what I try to replicate when I take a raw image and play with contrast and saturation.”
Wolfe was able to use Photoshop to breathe new life into some old photographs, but for many others, he decided simply to make new pictures with the superior equipment of today.
“I put on my tennis shoes over the last two years,” Wolfe says, “and have just been running around the planet recapturing a lot of the subjects I had shot before, shooting a lot of new ones, but with new cameras and better technology. If I hadn’t done that, I was fearful that someone would pick up this book and say, ‘Wow, this guy is greatly overrated!’ because we look through the perspective of what’s happening now. I just said, ‘I’m going to shoot as much new stuff as I can,’ and, in fact, that’s what happened. There are the iconic images I could never replace, the ones shot in remote villages that, for the sake of history, over 40 years, they have changed, or the cultures have changed, the environments changed. There are photos that date back a long time, but for the most part, it’s new. And, you know, I love a mission; that certainly got me out of the bed over the last two years.”
Earth Is My Witness is like an encyclopedia of Wolfe’s life work, though it’s impossible to sum up the magnitude and variety of his archive. He has spent a lifetime photographing wildlife and landscapes, people and cultures, but he’s not simply a nature photographer. Early on, his mission evolved into something more—to advocate for the protection and conservation of the Earth, its people and its resources.
“From a marketing point of view,” Wolfe says, “it’s great if you have one style and one look. People can define who you are. But over my career, I’ve dabbled in a lot of different genres and different styles. Intentionally, almost every wildlife book I’ve worked on had a different look. Rhythms From the Wild was a study of motion. Migrations was wallpaper, it was patterns. Vanishing Act was hiding the animals in front of you, and The Living Wild was wide-angle views of animals in their habitat. So, consequently, there are a lot of different styles in that, and then I’ve done books on cultures exclusively. The timing of Earth Is My Witness is perfect because it shows the strength of the unity of the diversity, rather than the opposite. When I teach art, I look at various artists and I make an analogy to my students that I used their work to inspire me to find photos. And, yet, each artist who I talk about had a look, a style. I just don’t believe I’ve got that. If anything, I’ve got a broader range, and this book kind of brings all those different styles into one book.”
Wolfe’s wide-ranging interests stem from simple curiosity. “Curiosity really rules the roost here,” he says. “I’m really curious about a lot of different things, and it was instilled in me as an art major, a painting major, not to be too complacent, not to be too happy with what you’re doing. In other words, don’t rest on your laurels. And that has stuck with me. So I always wanted to try something new. And I think that goes part and parcel with world travel and being exposed to all the different religions, all the different cultures, all the different genres. I’m a sponge, and I think Earth Is My Witness reflects a bit of that—not the entirety of what I do, but a great portion of it. It shows all the variety of styles I’ve been involved in.”
Wolfe’s ability lies not just in the preparation to put himself in the right place at the right time and bring his unique artistic vision to bear, but rather his ability to see and do what’s necessary to make a great photo. He works diligently to create photographs, not just to find and capture them.
“There’s an image in the book called ‘Spiritual Journey,'” Wolfe says. “This is an image that I made in the spring of 2001. It was at the Kumbh Mela in India. It’s a pilgrim crossing the Ganges. It captures the essence of what happens, yet I had to make it happen. I used a polarizer to remove any reflection on the water in the foreground so it looks like dark water. The boat is in the water, but it’s stuck in the mud because I needed to stabilize it, and then through an interpreter, I asked the person to remain very still because it required a one-second exposure to get to ƒ/22. I used a neutral-density filter, aligning with the distant horizon. And I had to be there right in the five-second period when the sun emerges out of the haze in the distance before it’s too hot to include. Everything had to come together, including a static moment. And it captures the essence in a beautiful, eloquent way. But it took preplanning to execute it. It looks like I’m just walking down the front gaps of Varanasi, this ancient city along the Ganges, and yet it had to take foresight and forethought and plan it the night before because I had been there for four days and I saw how consistently the sun came up, and I saw this person rowing down the river, and I asked them to come back first thing in the morning, a half-hour before sunrise.
In his workshops, Wolfe works to get people to see differently: “I try to push people’s perceptions; I shake them up a bit. I show them the wide view. I start to get them into the idea of looking into something rather than at something.”
“When people see an image like this,” says Wolfe, “they don’t think about that, and that’s okay. I don’t want them dwelling on it; I want them to respond. I certainly want to elicit an emotional response. I want them to feel the power of the moment. Whether that moment is identical to what they’re thinking it is, is irrelevant. I want them to feel the moment I’m trying to create.”
Adds Wolfe, “There’s another series of photos in the book from above. There was a set of monks in a monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and I had this image in my mind of shooting straight down on a bunch of monks praying. But to make that happen, I had to find a location, I had to convince the monks to do it, and then I had to cantilever myself out over the monks, looking straight down, 60 feet. People don’t have a concept of the work that goes into an image. It’s not the same kind of shot that’s of a diving eagle or a bounding mammal, but they all have their unique workflow and story.”
For most photographers, accumulating almost 500 world-class images in their portfolio would be a lifelong challenge. For Wolfe, the challenge is in the culling, paring down his amazing work to just under 500 representatives.
“That was a painful experience,” Wolfe says. “I’m dogmatic about certain things, and then I make my case and then I listen to other people, and often other people’s opinions sway me. I don’t get involved in arguments, period. I make my case, it was painful for me, and, yet, at the end of it, I let go of some of my favorite images and other people will make strong cases that these were better. And, at that point, I just say, well, alright. I’m in agreement. So I feel great about this book. I’ve got almost all of my favorite images in there—not all of them, but almost all—and that’s not a bad statement to make.”
Adds Wolfe, “The book is just hundreds and hundreds of moments. Whether the light is extraordinarily great, or there’s a moment in a cultural scene where everything comes together, or an animal is lighting off of a pond and the water is spraying back—whatever it may mean, it means the earth is witnessing that moment. And I’m there with a camera to capture it.”
To see more of Art Wolfe‘s photography and learn more about his new book, visit artwolfe.com.
Art Wolfe’s Gear
Canon, Nikon, Olympus—they’re all great, but I use the Canon EOS-1D X and 5D Mark III. I only own two camera bodies.
One of the best lenses that I bought to complete this project was the Canon EF 200-400mm ƒ/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X supertelephoto zoom. I love that lens. It has been brilliant for me. I love wide-angles, and I use the Canon 16-35mm and 24-105mm extensively. I have far less equipment than the average doctor who has become a photographer. Our feet are good zooms, and we can get closer or move back. It’s about economy of scale and travel. I have to be judicious with what I buy. That 200-400mm is a great, great purchase. But when I bought it, I sold my 500mm immediately, and the 200-400mm then becomes my long lens. I don’t think I’ve sacrificed anything so far.
My gear bag is going to be changing. I’m working with Gura Gear to bring out an Art Wolfe Gura Gear bag. There are a lot of great bags out there, but I think Gura Gear is making some of the lightest and toughest on the market.