Frans Lanting and Art Wolfe: Using Photography’s Power for Planet Earth

In a special presentation before a packed room at PDN’s Outdoor Photo Expo in Salt Lake City on Friday, photographers Frans Lanting and Art Wolfe talked about their careers as nature photographers who have focused on conservation. Photographer Patrick Donehue moderated the presentation. Both Lanting and Wolfe are self-taught photographers, and each is extremely committed to preserving the beauty and disappearing elements of the natural world. During the presentation they spoke of their shared belief that one person can make a difference.

What follows are highlights and images from Lanting and Wolfe’s presentation.

In his early career, Frans Lanting discovered “pure magic” in the work of nature illustrators, Dutch wildlife photographers and landscape photographer Ernst Haas, and set out to develop his own esthetic point of view.

A well-known image Lanting recently made in Namibia caused people to wonder whether it was a painting or not, he recalled. He explained that it’s actually simple to make a painterly image if you can anticipate the pattern. “To me photography is about recognizing patterns, it’s subliminal,” he said.

This is evident in his Horseshoe crab image, pictured here. Lanting realized that he could apply this way of seeing to different habitats all over the world, and through this engage viewers with the content of the photographs. “If you want to get ideas of the natural world across, you better have a very graphic style that will attract a lot of eyeballs,” Lanting told the audience.

Lanting described how he gets inspiration from writers, politicians, graphic artists and scientists. “I want to make science emotional instead of facts and figures,” he said. Lanting has worked with astrophysicists and particle physics researchers from CERN in Switzerland on photographing microscopic images. The image of diatoms pictured here was included in the multimedia piece LIFE: A Journey Through Time. First set to music and performed in 2008 at a celebration for the inauguration of the Large Hadron Collider in 2008, Life: A Journey Through Time is now touring different cities, where it is accompanied by live symphony orchestra performances. Lanting is also collaborating with research scientists specializing in the human genome and other bio tech projects, and some of the resulting images will be included in the LIFE performances that will take place in Silicon Valley, California in October 2011 as part of the University of California, Santa Cruz’ Founders Day event called “Evolutionary/Revolutionary.”

Lanting’s river image (pictured here), he said, is the most influential photograph he ever took.
It drew the attention of millions towards conservation and helping the people of Madagascar. Said Lanting: “If you want to be effective using photography as a tool you can’t just show deforestation, you need to show everything else around it: the way people survive, poverty, etcetera. You’ve got to make it compelling and urgent in some spooky way.”

Art Wolfe originally studied painting and art history. These studies had a profound effect on his eye and the way he composes and finds meaning in his images.

He began documenting cultures during his three-month journey through Tibet. It was while on that trip he realized that it was important to put his camera down at certain points and engage with his subjects more fully. “I knew to step away and take it in,” Wolfe recalls. “I love documenting remote cultures, even though I’m known as a wildlife photographer.”

Wolfe uses both artistic and journalistic styles in his photographic approach to the natural world. “You’re not actually seeing what you’re capturing and that’s magic to me, just like painting.” His abstract image of sand and ice (pictured here) is an example of just such magic. Wolfe says he likes to “let the elements unfold and dictate the image. The more I can see the abstract, the better observer I can be of natural world.”

Wolfe also volunteers with organizations to visit indigenous cultures and observe how they adorn themselves, using straightforward portraits to confront the viewer with a profound immediacy. He says, “Like Frans, I want to affect people’s emotions by having that eye to eye connection that span different cultures.” Wolfe explained how the economy of travel forces him to work on several projects at the same time, so he’s always shooting for different parts of his portfolio. He explained how his involvement with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) helped to produce his book “Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky“.  Also, Wolfe has been involved with Conservation International for his television series Travels to the Edge which is currently broadcast worldwide.

In his work on the living world, Wolfe got close and low to the animals, shot with wide-angle lens because it was as much about habitat and showing the environment behind them, like in this image of Gentoos penguins.

In a completely inverse approach Wolfe’s series “Vanishing Act” exposes very little of the animals, showing how they exist in their habitats, most of them hiding like this owl pictured here. “Vanishing Act” is an award-winning Art book published with Little, Brown & Company.

During the Q&A session, photographer Patrick Donehue asked the speakers for their advice to fellow photographers. Wolfe said, “Find a place to move forward, be curious and competitive with yourself, not the person next to you.” Lanting urged photographers to align themselves with causes they support. “Hone your skills on a project you really believe in. If you can’t make it in your own backyard you’re not going to make it in Africa.”

Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting will be speaking with photographer Thomas Mangelson at PhotoPlus Expo on Saturday October 29 a seminar titled “Force of Nature.” For details, see the seminar schedule for PhotoPlus Expo.

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