The Call of the Wild
Part Four


Art Wolfe's most famous image is also the one that got him into trouble with fellow photographers.

 Ironically the same desire to innovate that helped make him famous also got him into hot water in the photographic community with the release of one of his most famous books, Migrations. In that book-which pays homage to the mesmerizing pattern works of M.C. Escher, one of the biggest influences on Wolfe's career-Wolfe digitally altered about a third of the book's images, including the cover shot of a herd of zebras which has become by far and away his most popular and biggest-selling image. It was 1994 and digital imaging was an emerging technology. Wolfe-who cloned individual zebras for the famous zebra herd shot -employed the computer to correct an image of a mass of animals where invariably one animal would be wandering in the wrong direction, thus disrupting the pattern he was trying to achieve. (Digitally altering images actually began in the 1980s.)

"In Migrations, I embraced the technology that was available to me," he says, "and I took the art of the camera to its limits. This was not a moral issue. It was just that in the beginning, we were naive. We didn't use identification. That is the sole issue. Photography has never been an accurate recording of what is out there. For years photographers have manipulated images by using different lenses, filters, films and in the darkroom."

Critics caught Wolfe by surprise by crying foul, saying digital imaging had no place in a nature book. Wolfe argued that the book was an art book-he says so in the book's foreword-and that the controversy was blown out of proportion because of one simple fact: he didn't identify the images he altered.

Galen Rowell, a contemporary of Wolfe's as an accomplished nature photographer, was among those who criticized Migrations. In a five-page letter to Wolfe, Rowell alternately scolded his friend and professed admiration for his work. His bottom line, though: "Don't do anything you wouldn't feel comfortable having fully revealed in a caption."

Others, such as Gary Braasch, chair of the North American Nature Photography Association, were steadfast: "Nature photography is one of the last bastions of pictures most people accept as real. Those who lie about the reality of their photos are taking advantage of everyone else and undercutting the basis of all our success."

True to form, when the debate was white hot, Wolfe always stood front and center to take on any naysayers, as he did in photography workshops around the nation, where he debated against naturalists and other wildlife photographers.

Today, the debate continues-- Atlantic Monthly recently ran a 20-page article on the ethics of digitally altering photos-but Wolfe has put it behind him. "I hated the controversy but was very glad people noticed," Wolfe says. "I wanted to capture spirits and uplift, and I won't apologize for that." Ever since Migrations, he has identified every image in a book that has been digitally altered.

He continues to embrace any and all new technology-"If you don't, you will be left behind," he says-and continues to produce some of the most dazzling imagery anywhere.

His current work can be seen in three books released this fall: Rainforests of the World: Water, Fire, Earth and Air, Pacific Northwest: Land of Light and Water; and Northwest Animal Babies.

The book on the Northwest was especially close to his heart. "Although I love the Antarctic and the plains of Africa, I have to admit my favorite places lie in the Pacific Northwest," he says. "This is precisely why I have lived here all my life. With all the traveling that I do, it is very grounding to live in the same place where I was born, reared and began my life of natural exploration.

"I have also watched over the years as other people have discovered what the Northwest is all about. It is no longer a secret, and there are many forces that undermine the integrity of its diverse environments. Without some forward-thinking politicians who can guide strong environmental legislation, I fear that every acre of unprotected forest, every mile of unprotected riverside and lakeshore, will eventually be covered with homes and business."

Wolfe puts his money where his mouth is. He produces a multi-media program to raise money for various charities, including the Northwest AIDS Foundation, the E. Donnall Thomas Guild of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Children's Home and the Alaska Coalition of Washington. His office also has an internship program for college students, some of whom come from the UW.

He is not one to stand still. Busy developing art galleries for new REI stores in Denver and Tokyo, Wolfe-known locally for his dazzling gallery at the downtown Seattle REI store-has more books in the works, more traveling to do. His stay in Seattle will be short. The wild is calling.

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Recent Books by Art Wolfe

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