I spent last Sunday afternoon listening to Jim and Jamie Dutcher speak about the six years they spent living with a pack of wolves in the Idaho wilderness. Those years have been documented in their still photography, films and books. Using photographic and scientific talent, they revealed many elements of a wolf pack’s life and in so doing, created understanding of the valuable part that wolves play in the wilderness ecosystem
The Dutchers raised the pack members from pups while they, themselves, lived in a yurt compound in the midst of the wolf containment area. Jim and Jamie stayed throughout all the seasons in the high wilderness for the duration of the project. By careful observation and documentation, the individual wolf personalities and ranking were revealed.
Wolves communicate via body language and through a complex vocabulary of yipping and howling. Focusing day and night on the wolves with an almost complete immersion in the life of the pack, the Dutchers created photographs and film that revealed new knowledge about wolf behavior and verbalization. For example, the omega or lowest ranking wolf, although larger in size than his brothers, always appears smaller in the photographs because of his slinking and submissive body language.
What does this have to do with your photographs? The Dutchers made a commitment to the wolves. They focused their entire lives for a period of time on documenting these shy and often misunderstood wild animals. As a consequence, their images are sensitive and evoke deep understanding and empathy in the viewer.
Another photographer with the same patient approach to his work is the Japanese photographer, Mitsuaki Iwago. In the mid 1980’s I saw a photo on the cover of National Geographic of a lioness and cub that spoke to me. I had to have a print. A picture agent friend in Tokyo knew Iwago, contacted him and purchased a print for me. Iwago had spent over a year in rural Africa hiding in blinds waiting and watching the lions in order to get incredible images like the one that I still have.
The lesson from these two stories is that when you find a niche subject that speaks to you whether it is documenting animals in the wild or wild people; volcanoes or exploding concepts, the more you immerse yourself in the subject, the better your images will be.
Few people have the luxury of spending six years in a yurt…oops that’s no luxury in my book. Canvas walls in 10 below zero? No thanks. Anyway you may not be able to take years away from other duties to focus on one subject but you don’t have to live in a tent to do so. The deeper you become involved with your subjects, the more the ‘real’ picture of what you are drawing or photographing will get. The essence will emerge. When you get to that place, the image will speak to others and become more than mere documentation. This brings power to the image. Power to change minds, power to teach and ok, let’s admit it: the power to sell.
What is the subject that gets you off the couch and out shooting? What would you like to photograph but just haven’t? Give yourself the goal of shooting that subject until you think you have exhausted it. Then go back and shoot it again and again. Artists understand this if they work in a realistic style. First is the sketch, then the details, and then more details emerge from the subject. The more you look, the better you’ll see.
(Obviously the images here were not taken by the Dutchers or Iwago but by patient and skilled Dreamstime photographers.)
Where to find more about Living with Wolves and the photographer Iwago:
Living with Wolves
NPR audio interview with Dutchers
Iwago and Climate Change