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Round Up: Travels with Art
by David Rasnake -  6/28/2008

“Don't even waste your memory cards on that tiny thing,” Art called over his shoulder from fifty yards up the trail. “The real tree is up here!”

We all ignored him: the massive up-ended root structure of this monolithic downed tree was quite possibly the largest once-living thing any of us had ever seen in person. Whatever even larger ancient sequoia might reside at the top of the hill would certainly still be there – as it had been for a few thousand years or so – ten minutes from now. But Art, in his excitement to show off a great shot location, continued to bound ahead of the group, yelling back in the vain hope of urging us along.

I had spent the morning observing noted adventure photographer Art Wolfe teach a workshop put on by Canon, and had been quite willingly cajoled into joining him and a small group of Canon folks and other F.o.A.s (“Friends of Art”) on a quick afternoon hike into Yosemite National Park's Mariposa Grove to see what was promised to be “the biggest tree you'll ever see in your entire life” – a Giant Sequoia with a 100-foot waist, presumed to be several thousand years old. Wolfe's enthusiasm for Yosemite's stark and imposing landscapes was apparent, drawing us all up a short climb to what proved to be a great late afternoon shooting location.

Art Wolfe
Art Wolfe answers composition questions during his Photography in the Parks workshop

With a list of publication credits that includes National Geographic, as well as his own TV show (public television's Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe) to his name, Wolfe is arguably the closest thing to an honest-to-goodness “superstar” in the world of adventure photography. Serving as a sort of photographic ambassador and occasional workshop leader in conjunction with Canon (as one of the company's so-called “Explorers of Light”), Wolfe had come to Yosemite to lead a series of informal photography classes as part of the manufacturer's Photography in the Parks program. Organized in conjunction with the American Parks Network and open exclusively to amateur photographers, Canon’s Photography in the Parks workshops are being held throughout the summer at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon National Parks. Built around a half-day of shooting with a pro instructor – including high-profile photographers like Wolfe – the workshops focus on camera basics and composition techniques for beginning to intermediate shooters.

Watching Wolfe in this setting, what impresses most is not that he's one of the most talented nature/travel photographers currently working – his books, his engaging presentations, and a season's worth of television shows bear this out. Rather, after spending a morning observing him work with the mostly novice-level shooters who showed up to take part in the Photography in the Parks program, I believe it's his patience, and in turn his ability to channel his talent and insight to photographers of all skill levels. The idea of having Art Wolfe teach photography to a group composed primarily of absolute beginners is roughly analogous to asking a Formula 1 racer to teach a driver's ed class: most professionals of his caliber in any discipline would be ill suited to teaching novices, but interestingly, Wolfe appears equally at home in talking with fellow pros, amateur shooters, or the general public through his presentations and TV show. Though the audience is different in each case, the lesson is largely the same.

Part of Art Wolfe's ease and success in teaching large-level photography lessons to shooters more focused on dealing with the basics of camera operation almost certainly has to do with the nature of his own photographic work. Paging through his galleries, I'm struck by how accessible his vision is – even for those who of us who didn't do so well in art appreciation classes. Even when he plays on abstract forms, little meaning is obscured in a Wolfe photo. And in capturing some of the most striking places on earth, nothing is left to the imagination. Rather, Wolfe is a master of letting a place speak for itself.

As with his personality in general, Wolfe has a finely honed ability to speak directly and clearly in his images that the most enduring artists often possess. The near-opposite of a “photographer's photographer,” Wolfe's skill in capturing the striking landforms, rich textures, and velvety colors of his native Pacific Northwest in particular give his best shots the kind of immediate visual appeal that's fallen out of favor in fine art photography – disparaged by some critics as too “obvious.” While Wolfe's compositions are undeniably straightforward – he speaks frequently of composing shots that “make sense” of a particular landscape – his vision is neither simple nor obvious.

What is simple, though, is the raw power of his images, the immediate emotions they evoke. This is what the best travel photographs do: they help draw us in and connect us to the total sense – the look, but also the mood – of a place. In a subtle way, in something as simple as taking pictures on vacation, this is what we're all reaching for – bringing our connection with a place home with us in an image. In talking about scenes and images that speak to him, Wolfe often uses the word “iconic.” After some time watching him evaluate a location, I get the sense that this choice of words isn't arbitrary: rather, Art Wolfe's own ideas about photography seem to be largely wrapped up in creating images that are “icons” in the purest sense of the word – objects which convey the essence of their subjects.

In the same way, there was nothing obtuse or esoteric about the ideas presented in Wolfe's walk-and-talk workshop. Instead, he hit the basics – thirds composition, color, texture, contrasting elements, and the overarching importance of shooting in good light (early in the day, late in the day) for reeling in the best possible photos – stopping periodically to scope out an area or point out a detail worth capturing. We didn't stray far beyond shouting distance from the frenetic Yosemite visitors' center during the three-hour session, usually covering little more than a quarter mile or so between stops on one of the short (and somewhat ironically named) “nature trails” that criss-cross the valley.

Undoubtedly, the best photographic opportunities in Yosemite (as with most places) require a little more leg work than this particular photo walk demanded, but the point of Canon’s program is to make experiences like this accessible to photographers of all physical as well as all photographic abilities. A few die-hard Wolfe fans who showed up expecting a Travels to the Edge-style excursion into the High Sierra backcountry came away disappointed, but no one in the group – from retirees to expectant mothers – got left behind by the pace of the traveling session. And the fact that Wolfe was able to point out opportunities to capture great shots even in the face of harsh midday light and with the madding crowds of summer vacationers never far away only served to emphasize another key point of the workshop: making good pictures can be less about what you see than how you see it.

Round Up
Pine Grove, Yosemite Valley

Wolfe's pedagogical style throughout the workshop was loose and informal, calling the entire quadruple-the-usual-size shooting group of 40 or so together periodically to make a point, and then dispersing us to tackle the points of instruction on our own. During the session, Wolfe spent one-on-one time with nearly every photographer in the group, fielding composition questions, reviewing and critiquing just-taken shots, and putting technical issues into context. As part of the program, Canon had put a loaner Rebel XSi in the hands of every participant, and though a small army of experienced photographers and Canon reps was on hand to answer technical concerns, Wolfe dealt masterfully with the basics of photographic technology – aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and how all of these concepts relate to getting a certain “look” in a specific situation.

Though Canon's marketing angle in all of this was never far from the surface, I came away thoroughly impressed by how much substantive general information the class provided. Rather than using the Photography in the Parks session as an opportunity to pitch the benefits of the XSi, Canon's reps let Wolfe take the lead instead and do what he does naturally: show people how to compose great shots. The fact that just about every attendee almost certainly came home with some excellent pictures taken under Wolfe's guidance that also happened to be taken by a Canon camera is all the positive advertising the manufacture is likely to need in this case.

With Wolfe’s short workshop offering as much photographic insight as most shooters take away from a month's worth of photography courses at the local community college, and offering it all at no cost to boot, it was hard not to come away impressed with what Canon’s program is doing. Several other manufacturers offer similar free or low-cost programs (as noted, it makes good business sense), and if you ever have the chance to take advantage of these opportunities they're really not to be missed.

Likewise, my particular experience has left me that much more impressed by the work of Art Wolfe, and more than that, by his ability to communicate his photographic experience in a way that both makes sense to and improves the pictures taken by photographers of all skill levels. Displaying a patience and a humility that are both too often lacking among photographers at the top of their profession, Wolfe is easy to greatly respect not only for his work, but as an skilled teacher who conveys an honest excitement about creating images.

At the end of the day, anyone can buy an expensive camera, but it’s this kind of dedication to the craft of photography itself from which truly great images are made.


Round Up is a regular editorial column published weekly on DigitalCameraReview.com.