The High Himalaya. Art Wolfe. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2001. 160 pages, 140 photographs, HARDCOVER. $49.95.
Few contemporary nature photographers are as prolific or talented as Seattle-based Art Wolfe, who spends nine months a year traveling to remote corners of the world in search of stunning images. In just three decades he has produced 45 books and it was only a matter of time before he focused on the Himalaya—perhaps the planet’s most magnificent landscape.
Given the impressive number of Himalayan books that have already been published, he faced some very hard acts to follow. As I first flipped through the pages of High Himalaya, however, I was pleased to see many signature images that immediately set him apart. I especially liked his strong visual theme of tightly-cropped details, patterns, and textures, a peek at things that is uniquely his own. Some are as intimate as a spray of tiny flowers in the Rongbuk Valley, the ripples in a folded rock, or the snowy slats of a bridge across the Hunza River. Others are grander, ranging from star tracks behind towering mountains to huge fluted snow faces, or hazy ridges receding towards the plains of India. Within these frames he shows us the world as he alone can see it.
In many images Wolfe also demonstrates his mastery of light, shadow and color—as well as the patience to wait until they are perfect. I loved the alpenglow he captured on Masherbrum, Mitre Peak, and many others, and wanted to step right into the “God rays” he saw pouring between the Trango Towers. Also notable were juxtapositions of light and shadow that bring huge depth to some of his images on the Pamir Plateau and one winning shot of Gasherbrum. He knows how to make the most of a swirl of color, or the momentary kiss of warmth into an otherwise frigid environment.
Viewing this book with eyes that have seen more Himalayan pictures than I can remember, I was impressed. It’s inspirational to watch how he plays with the light and frames his pictures to maximize curves, jagged edges, repeating shapes, and other compositional elements that make them “Art” (pun intended), not just snapshots. Still, I wish that Wolfe had edited even more tightly toward this distinctive vision.
As with most photography books, High Himalaya includes a few pictures that seem to stray from the mix and these puzzled me. There’s a yak staring stupidly at the camera in boring mid-day light and a few scenes of various mountains that any trekker might have shot. As well, there are scenes of mountains such as Machhapuchhare or the Trango Towers that break no distinctly new visual ground. But maybe these serve a purpose. By reminding the viewer of the ordinary, they make us appreciate his stronger images all the more.
A more serious critique of High Himalaya, however, is the book’s inclusion of a text that bears little connection to the images. Aside from Wolfe’s own camera notes about each picture— which are fun to read and provide interesting background (as well as the book’s only personal story line)—the rest of the words are interviews and short descriptions of the accomplishments of famed mountaineers Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs, and Doug Scott, all written by Peter Potterfield. Together with a nicely articulated and very personal introduction by Norbu Tenzing Norgay (Tenzing’s son), these echo a common theme that the real rewards of Himalayan mountaineering are encounters with the natural environments and cultures through which alpinists pass in search of their summits. Here, each climber suggests the need to reach out and learn something from local people, and then to give something back.
This is a noble and important message, but it doesn’t really fit the pictures. It also leads Wolfe into dangerous ground, inviting comparison not just with landscape photographers— with whom he can hold his own—but also with such brilliant Himalayan cultural photographers as Eric Valli, Roland and Sabrina Michaud or Steve McCurry—with whom he does not. In a few cases he delivers. His best people shots are of Kazakh horsemen galloping together in clouds of dust as they jostle one another for possession of a headless goat. He stopped and really waited to catch them at their best. I also liked the patterns he captured in the exotic yellow hats of Buddhist monks in Kathmandu, the splash of color on the back of a Balti child carrying flowering weeds in Askole, or the rich warm light on the faces of Uygur children in western China.
Over a broader span of pages, however, I was disappointed. The book includes too many listless, unengaged portraits of people staring at the lens, whether they be wrinkled Nepali grandmothers, Hindu “naga babas,” gangs of giggling kids, or sultry teenagers sucked closer by a telephoto. It looks as if Wolfe was rushing through his encounters with many of these subjects en route to something more important. Only occasionally does his cultural photography share the same power and attention to detail as his pictures of nature and the mountains—which he, himself, admits to be his forte and greatest love. With a few exceptions, I wish he’d stuck with what he does best.
What really sets a book apart is passion. You can’t look at Galen Rowell’s My Tibet, Eric Valli’s Caravans, or Steve McCurry’s Monsoon without feeling a visceral sense of how much they love their subjects. There is no doubt that Wolfe also brims with this for both the art of photography and the wider natural world. In the best pages of High Himalaya, that shines clearly through the ink. But as I look more carefully at this somewhat disjointed book, I feel that in Wolfe’s exuberance to create powerful mountain images, he hasn’t slowed down enough to let the more ethereal Himalaya root deeply in his soul.