“I’ve Lived the Life of 500 People”: The Photography of Art Wolfe

Earth Is My Witness chronicles Wolfe’s 40-year career as a photographer

Moon over erupting summit vent, Mount Etna, Sicily, Italy. "In August 2001 I tuned in to news reports that Sicily’s Mount Etna was erupting once again, this time endangering the village of Nicolosi on the southern slopes of the 3,323-meter (10,902-foot) volcano. After a day’s mobilization, I caught a flight to Rome and headed south to Sicily. Thirty-two hours after leaving Seattle, I arrived at a vantage point designated for the assembled international press corps." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Enlightenment, Mahagandayon Monastery, Myanmar. "Young Buddhist novices meditate in the predawn hours." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. "One bird on one little iceberg is a metaphor for climate change, and I love this image for that." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Icebergs, Antarctica. "I love the way the green arch surrounds the distant blue icebergs, and how some of the blue-green ice is showing just below the water’s surface." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Bengal tiger (Panthera t. tigris), Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India. "A tiger crosses a clearing in the dense forest in central India. This is one of my favorite tiger shots, simply because of the elegant position of this powerful cat. The shoulder muscles are very much in evidence. China’s burgeoning economy has escalated the illegal trade of tiger parts, so tigers have become increasingly endangered throughout Asia." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Karo warriors, Omo Valley, Ethiopia. "Five warriors show off their gorgeous body painting and the ostrich plumes sticking out of their headplates, distinguishing adornments of their culture." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Water bearers, Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. "Women bear the responsibility of fetching water from the sparse wells within Rajasthan’s vast Thar Desert. Silhouetted at the crest of a sand dune, these women expertly balance large clay water vessels atop their heads." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Jat women, Gujarat, India. "What struck me about these young women was their poise and confidence while being photographed. I positioned them near the entrance of their mud-and-stick hut to use the reflected light from outside." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Fishermen, Inle Lake, Myanmar. "Here people practice a very unique style of fishing, gently lowering thimble-shaped nets in a very shallow lake over fish hiding in the water grasses; they then rap their oar against the net, disturbing the fish and causing them to swim into the net." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), Vava‘u, Tonga. "Tonga is one of the very few places you can actually snorkel in close proximity to whales. We had just five days on the water; four of them were too windy, and the whales were very shy. In a more outgoing moment, a whale swam by and eyeballed me." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus), Manitoba, Canada. "During breeding season, arctic foxes form monogamous pairs. Both fend for the kits when they are born." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Gemsbok (Oryx gazella), Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. "I raced down a trail to catch the languid curve of the dune as one side was lit by morning sun and the other in deep shade. I managed to frame it so the line ended at a sharply horned gemsbok." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana. "I set up by a shallow pond and was able to position the camera in a way to capture the width of the landscape with a wide angle. The elephants were moving with purpose, spraying water and flapping their ears." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Asaro mudmen, Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. "Lying on my back, I was surrounded by these eerie mask-clad men. I exposed for the mud masks and blew out the sky to give a lightness to the image." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Bajau seaborne settlement, Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia. "Sometimes called sea gypsies, the Bajau have little allegiance to any country, and live in boats and small stilted homes offshore." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Chimbu men in bamboo, Highlands Region, Papua New Guinea. "To get a sense of the environment as well as an interesting perspective, I asked these skeleton men to climb into this bamboo grove. I intentionally created a sunburst by using a small aperture and just having a little bit of the sun peek around the thick stem." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Market, Lake Nokoué, Benin. "In the tiny West African country of Benin, large freshwater lakes provide a bountiful harvest for local fishermen and open-air markets. This marketplace presents a colorful foreground as a storm builds on the horizon." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness
Cheetah and cubs (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa. "Cheetahs often seek out termite mounds to rest upon. On the slightly higher ground they are able to survey their surroundings." Art Wolfe, The Earth Is My Witness

For five decades, Art Wolfe has traveled the globe, camera in hand, documenting everything from bull elephants in Botswana to blue icebergs in Antarctica. In Earth Is My Witness: The Photography of Art Wolfe, his life's work is laid out across more than 400 glossy pages, offering readers a chance to immerse themselves in the threatened places, animals and cultures that he has dedicated his career to capturing. The book is both a testament to a prodigious career and a celebration of a man who has devoted his life to conservation photography. 

Wolfe is no stranger to publishing: Since 1989, he has released at least one book a year, but he looks at Earth Is My Witness through a different lens. "I've done 80 books," Wolfe told Smithsonian.com, "and if anyone has entertained the idea of owning one of my books, I think this is the book that covers all the bases. I'm very proud of it." Wolfe travels nearly nine months out of the year, but recently spoke with us from his Seattle office about his lengthy career, avoiding "writer's block" and the places he most wants to see to next.

Earth Is My Witness: The Photography of Art Wolfe

Earth Is My Witness is the most extensive collection of Art Wolfe photography ever compiled. This lavishly produced work spans the globe, bringing the beauty of the planet’s fast-disappearing landscapes, wildlife, and cultures into stunning focus.

Smithsonian: How did you come to photography?

Wolfe: I was an art major at the University of Washington, but also during those college years I got into climbing. I was always a young naturalist—I always loved the natural world, and as I got older, I got more and more into hiking up into mountains and onto glaciers. During the week I’d go to school and learn about composition, and on the weekends, I got a little camera to document the climbs. My allegiances shifted during those college years. I absorbed everything I was learning in art school and applied it to my photos. By the time that I graduated, I saw myself as a photographer rather than a painter.

What did photography offer that was different from fine art?

It was much easier to create original compositions through the photographic process than to try to sit and stare at a blank piece of canvas or watercolor paper and create a meaningful composition. And I started seeing, fairly fast, that the camera could be a ticket to travel. I've always wanted to see what was beyond the ocean. Living on the West Coast you look out across the ocean toward Asia, and the camera became a passport into the unknown: to cultures, to countries that I wanted to see.

The book is a massive 400-page collection of photographs from your entire career thus far. How has your approach to photography and to capturing what you see changed or evolved? Can we see that in the book?

I think the greatest thing that art gave me was the insatiable curiosity to look at what I was doing but not to be completely satisfied and lulled into a sense of complacency. With people, there are classic portraits, there are candid moments, but there's also a subset of photos where I've completely created an abstract composition, where I've arranged up to 60 monks in a rosette below me in a monastery on the outskirts of Katmandu. A lot of people would condemn that and say that I'm altering reality, but wearing the hat of an artist ... I've given myself permission to do that.

The thing I was trying to avoid was something analogous to writer's block, where you run out of ideas. Fine art training and studying art taught me and encouraged me to evolve my work and never to get in a rut and shoot the same thing forty years later, and that has kept me excited and moving forward in a positive direction.

What do you find that inspires you most?

Capturing an image that may be a very private moment between you and a subject, but if it's successful, it can be seen and witnessed by millions of people around the globe. I think that's the undercurrent of almost everything I've done over the last 40 years. It's why sculptors sculpt and writers write and painters paint ... communicating a thought and idea that, if successful, reaches a broad audience. I wear the hat of a communicator. I photograph for my own enjoyment, but that in and of itself wouldn't do it. It's communicating, inspiring and encouraging people through the photographic medium that really puts the fire in my belly.

There's this idea, among people who study memory, that in order to feel as though you've lived a long life, it's not necessarily about living a lot of years but doing a lot of things, and having a lot of memories to fill those years. I look at your book, and I see all of the places you've been and all the memories you must have—is there one, or a few, in particular, that stands out to you?

I totally agree with that. My father passed away when he was 94 a couple of years ago. I would come home from yet another trip and he was living in an assisted care facility very close to where I lived, and I would naturally stop by before I even went home. And he was looking at me under the covers kind of worried, and I said "Are you worrying about me?" And he would nod, and I would say, "Listen, I’ve lived the life of 500 people. I've seen all of the charismatic animals I've ever wanted to see, from snow leopards to giant pandas to mountain gorillas to great white sharks. I've been all over the Earth, I've lived the life of 500 people; do not worry about me. Take care of yourself."

When I first looked at that book as a published book, with all the photos in it, it was humbling. I felt humbled by having been to the Karakoram Range and looking at K2, or being involved in the first Western expedition to Tibet, or being in the heart of the Amazon and witnessing tribes that hadn’t been exposed to the outside world. All of those—almost any one of those photos that I focus on in that book will have an etched memory in my brain. I cannot remember the names of people I taught two days ago, but show me an image and I can tell you a story about it with clarity.

Having done so much—having lived those 500 lives—what's next? Are there places you haven't been that you want to go?

I've got like five or six books in my mind, many of which I've been working on. The fear is running out of ideas, writer's block. Creative energy courses through my body. I'll always be working on something, I'll never be retired.

There are a lot of places I've never been: Egypt, Spain, places that people would maybe think would be the first places I would go. I'm holding those off until I get a little older. I want to go through the Middle East.

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