Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Art Wolfe: Honoring a Photographer and Philanthropist

Physician, philosopher, and philanthropist, Albert Schweitzer believed that “Each of us is a wave that exists as part of an ocean; a wellspring of idealism whose reserves are concealed like underground streams; a source of kindness whose roots are joined to those of others”(8). In his poetics, extracted from Mike Martin's book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, Schweitzer propounds that at the foundation of humanity is a firm sense of inner-connectedness, governed by relationships rather than self-interest. Those who are willing to feed without promise of being fed strengthen those roots. If humanity can embrace this idea then all will eat and be satisfied. Although it is arguable that altruism suggests an impossibly divine sense of selflessness, it is an ideology worth striving for. In our modern age, we pay tribute to people of noble character in the form of honorary degrees, not as gifts but as thankful acknowledgements. James O. Freedman, in his book Liberal Education and the Public Interest, informs that "In bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most"(1). Our highest institutions, our universities, recognize these individuals for their service to the good of humankind in this manner. This award is all at once a tribute to an individual, a promotion of a university, and most importantly the acknowledgement of a common ideology that exists between the two. In this synthesis lies an example for morality, a suggestion to those who bear witness that life may be pursued idealistically.

The University of Southern California is a title that garners prestige, an institution of great scholars that strives to create humble and intelligent people in an effort to fulfill its mission. As quoted from a statement by the USC board of trustees, “The central mission of the University of Southern California is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit. The principal means by which our mission is accomplished are teaching, research, artistic creation, professional practice and selected forms of public service.” Therefore, a candidate for an honorary degree from USC should be one who pursues a parallel purpose. In the organic field of wildlife photography, Art Wolfe exemplifies the type of character deserving of such accolades based on these goals set forth by the university. In light of his relentless dedication to the natural world that has given him so much, despite his great financial gains and controversial practices, Wolfe is most deserving in his field to be awarded the honorary degree from the University of Southern California based on his commitment to an analogous mission of human development.

Wolfe has been described by William Conway, the former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, as "the most prolific and sensitive recorder of a rapidly vanishing natural world.” His career has spanned over thirty years; setting foot on all 7 continents, he has captured the world with his lens. This would seem perfect in the eyes of USC which asserts that "We are a global institution in a global center, attracting more international students over the years than any other American university." However, the responsibilities of a wildlife photographer extend far beyond the acquired image. A give and take balance is essential between man and his subject. Despite displaying great talent for this tight-rope-walk, Wolfe has managed to remain humbly out of the celebrity spotlight unlike many of his adventurer counterparts. One of USC's goals in awarding honorary degrees is to "honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public." The temptation for publicity looms heavily when universities consider well-known figures for the honor. As Freedman puts it, "it is a practice rich in opportunity as well as ripe for abuse"(1). Wolfe is a hard-working candidate free of this potential tarnish to USC.


Wolfe’s commitment to his work is reflected in the new generations of photographers that he is working to educate. Based out of Seattle, Washington, Wolfe holds a variety of photography classes and seminars on topics ranging from composition to digital manipulation. In support of the new wave of digital technology, Wolfe teaches cutting edge photoshop techniques. In reference to the controversy over digital manipulation, Wolfe, in an article by Jon Marmor entitled "Call of the Wild", from the University of Washington Columns Magazine, says simply “If you don’t [utilize the technology], you will be left behind.” This attitude has been the hallmark for his success. If he is to teach a new generation of photographers he must look to the medium of the future. USC values teaching above all else saying, “We strive constantly for excellence in teaching knowledge and skills to our students, while at the same time helping them to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.” Boasting a lengthy tenure, Wolfe is most qualified in his field to impart that wisdom.

However, he does not do so without any personal gain. One may indeed question the self-serving nature of his teaching in that his four to five day classes cost his students from $900 up to $1,100. Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, agued that at the base of every man’s character is his own self-interest and that altruism is a futile pursuit. Martin, in reference to Smith, states that “moral ideals should essentially be relegated to private life, with professional life guided primarily by economic and self-interested values together with minimal moral restrictions”(3). Though Martin himself is in disagreement with Smith, the theory is that if one works toward personal financial gain, they will inadvertently promote the lives of those around them. In this light, it is necessary to consider the well being of Wolfe’s 14 employees whose lives depend on his work ethic and monetary gains. Similarly, universities are giant businesses that teach as well as employ a great number of people. Money is then recycled within the system to promote the welfare of the business and its body of individuals. Thanks to his earnings, Wolfe is able to travel nine months out of the year, snapping countless photographs while his business runs smoothly without his presence. Therefore, it is vital to look beyond his fattened pockets and recognize the true value of his teaching that is evident in the work of his pupils and employees. In order to prepare a new generation of photographers properly, Wolfe has done his research. His classrooms features 12 state-of-the-art workstations equipped with an impressive array of technology. Most importantly, Wolfe is teaching his own ideas and innovations rather than reiterating existing practices; he is a pioneer in his brand of research and teaching. This would seem in perfect harmony with USC’s mission which states, “USC is one of a very small number of premier academic institutions in which research and teaching are inextricably intertwined, and on which the nation depends for a steady stream of new knowledge, art, and technology.” Wolfe’s diligence allows him to remain at the forefront of new camera and editing equipment. In turn, knowledge is carried on in his students.

In fact, his enthusiasm for digital manipulation has threatened his reputation in the past, although he stalwartly defends himself. In 1994, the beginning of digital technology, Wolfe released his best known book Migrations to a great deal of controversy. Many professional photographers criticized him for manipulating 1/3 of the images including the famous cover of a zebra herd in which he filled in the gaps with digital clones of other zebras. Excerpted from the University of Washington Columns Magazine, Chair of the North American Nature Photography Association, Gary Braasch, showed his displeasure with Wolfe’s actions in saying that "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." Wolfe defends his decision by explaining, “I embraced the technology that was available to me…This was not a moral issue… For years photographers have manipulated images by using different lenses, filters, films and in the darkroom.” He articulates that it was an art book, as stated in its forward, and that the only issue is that he neglected to label the altered photographs as such. It is a debate between tradition and innovation. Wolfe, much like USC, chooses to look to the future.

At the foundation of Wolfe’s research and teaching, however, is his profound sense of artistry. In fact, photography was never his intended field of work. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a minor in art education from the University of Washington, Wolfe pursued a career as an art teacher and free-lance painter. Only through chance connections and influences did he stumble upon photography; soon after this cosmic gravitation of mind and medium he began selling his prints at street fairs. A background in painting gave him a creative edge in a field dominated by journalists. An artist biography at globalgallery.com calls Wolfe “a master of composition, an image magician who creates visual symphonies for the eyes and heart.” An extensive corpus of work has garnered many accolades. His books include: Vanishing Act, Edge of the Earth/Corner of the Sky, The Living Wild, High Himalaya, Africa, and Hidden Northwest. Many awards have come of these compilations such as Winner of the 2001 Western US Book Design Awards, Winner of the National Outdoor Book Awards, and Winner of the PMA Benjamin Franklin 2004 Awards in his respective category, to name a few. On top of that, according to an article by Lexar Media, Inc., “Wolfe has been awarded with a coveted Alfred Eisenstaedt Magazine Photography Award as well as named Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association.” His artistry is at the center of his conservation efforts and his photographs work to inspire an appreciation for the wild and the unknown. With an incredible mastery of light and movement Wolfe has set the standard for photographing wildlife and nature. Seattle science writer, Barbara Sleeper describes how "He talks to the animals, and he has such a presence. He seems to captivate them and look into their soul. You can feel the connection." With an acute sense of respect for his subjects, Wolfe is able to capture mesmerizing images.

In order for these images to reach the eyes of the world, Wolfe must take a multifaceted, professional approach to dissemination. To reiterate, he has built a business around his talent. Wolfe describes himself as “an octopus, branching arms out into a number of different areas where [his] images will sell.” By diversifying his income by way of book sales, matted prints, stock photos, DVDs, teaching workshops, and even brief jobs in television, Wolfe is able to support his travels and his employees. Within Martin's text, Adam Smith remarks metaphorically in Wealth of Nations that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”(3). Again, the argument for altruism may arise. However, the value of his work is intrinsic to its results of awareness and conservation. That it also wins monetary recognition is an acceptable reality based on what good comes of it.

While much of his success goes back into the proliferation of his business, beyond that, Wolfe supports a countless list of conservation organizations and other various philanthropic associations. While most deal with the environment, he also supports groups concerned with education, the arts, medicine, the disabled, and a great deal more. Freedman may find this to be a strong argument confessing "In choosing honorands, I emphasize intellectual distinction and public service"(3). With this in consideration, Smith's cry of self-interest is lost in the clamor of charity. In 1998, according to his website, “The National Audubon Society recognized Wolfe's work in support of the national wildlife refuge system with its first-ever Rachel Carson Award." Conservation is Wolfe’s photographic muse; in turn, his photography makes his philanthropic efforts possible. There is a cyclical pattern between work and passion that allows him to continue his support. Stephen L. Darwall, as quoted from Martin, recognizes the effect something like public service can have on the individual performing it asserting that “Something can give meaning to our lives only if we believe it to have intersubjective value…Values that give our lives meaning both inspire and root our lives. They give our spirits the very air they need to breathe”(21). From this angle, it is conceivable that Wolfe gains a great deal more from his services, his values, than he does from his business. Beyond the many organizations that he helps to fund, Wolfe is also on the board of advisors of the Wildlife Conservation Society and is a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The self-proclaimed “octopus” certainly keeps his hands occupied.

In understanding human motivation a balance must be struck. By contrasting the ideas of Adam Smith and Albert Schweitzer, Martin poses a question of morality and economy. While Smith argued that these two spheres of life are separate and in opposition to one another, Schweitzer collapsed the divide and allowed morality to influence and even rule over all spheres. Although Wolfe has earned a great deal of fiscal wealth, his moral values do not remain separate from his work. Therefore, it is conceivable that he would be in agreement with Martin’s commentary on Schweitzer when he says “we are not economic atoms; instead we are defined through our relationships with others within communities”(8). Wolfe has made his work his moral impetus. Art Wolfe is most deserving in the field of wildlife photography and conservation to be awarded an honorary degree from the University of Southern California based on his teaching, research, artistry, professional stature, and philanthropy, but most of all for allowing his ethical impulses to guide each of his many arms.