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Originally published Saturday, August 14, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Art Wolfe and the rise of nature photography

An interview with Seattle photographer Art Wolfe about the International Conservation Photography Awards.

Seattle Times arts writer

Seattle photographer Art Wolfe cites his early training as an educator as the chief inspiration for his founding of the International Conservation Photography Awards (ICPA) in 1997.

"I love teaching, I love inspiring, and I love mentoring," he said recently at his SoDo studio. "This was just an extension of that."

Helping young photographers find a public venue for their work was important to him. And as the ICPA developed over the years, it grew more and more environmental in emphasis.

After finding homes at the Museum of History & Industry, Rainier Square and Wolfe's own studio, the competition has found a permanent home at the Burke.

While a number of the photographers are local, the subject matter is international — and so, increasingly, are the people behind the lens.

"The first time we started doing this it was, relatively, a regional exhibit. And as it progressed over the years, it became national. This year," Wolfe says proudly, "there's at least seven or eight different countries that people were submitting from. And I hope to grow that."

As Wolfe sees it, the competition serves two purposes: "It provides a great platform for photographers to see their work in a very respectful way and to be judged amongst their peers. And the second thing is it brings something for the Seattle population, the Northwest population, to see and experience quality photography."

Wolfe shepherded ICPA along the way, but at a certain point handed it off: "I distanced myself from the judging because I know so many people. I didn't want to have any influence whatsoever."

This year he was traveling overseas when the photos were being selected.

His only direct input is on the Art Wolfe Award, drawn from winners and honorable mentions in all nine categories.

"I didn't know who the jurors had awarded awards. I just looked at an open canvas of photos — no names. It was a total open slate. And I do think I picked the best," he laughs of the winner, Stuart Westmorland's "Sailfish Troica."

His criteria were "the difficulty of the subject, the originality of the subject and the impact of the subject."

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Wolfe warms up to the question of whether there's a contradiction between intention and effect when a sight that should be worrying — Chris Linder's shot of meltage on Greenland's ice cap, for instance — is so beautiful that its import may be lost.

"A lot of the most provocative photos are ones that lure you in," Wolfe says. "You think one thing, and then the truth is revealed. ... The alternative is to have a grotesque subject and not even care about the composition — just aim the camera and shoot it."

In his own photography, Wolfe prefers the first approach. "I've made beautiful photographs in the slums of Calcutta. And it's not showing degradation as much as the spirit that these people have. But I still want to do it in an eloquent and beautiful way."

Wolfe is also a champion of nature photography.

"In the past," he says, "we've paid more homage to black-and-white photographers, or celebrity photographers, or sports photographers. Nature photographers, historically, were considered almost trite. But I think as the natural world becomes more at risk and under assault in so many different environments, the value and the placement of these natural-history photographers will rise in our society, as they should."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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