Few photographers with a better pedigree come to mind when you think of Tim Wolcott’s. He’s a descendant of Alexander S. Wolcott, who, on May 8, 1840, was granted United States Patent Number 1582. It’s a patent for a “method of taking likenesses by means of a concave reflector and plates so prepared as that luminous or other rays will act thereon.” In other words, it’s a camera. It also happens to be the first American patent issued for photography.
Alexander Wolcott was born in 1804, and was known as a New York daguerreotype artist. His camera patent is the first one which used a concave mirror to reflect light onto the photographic plate, instead of lenses. This reduced the achingly-long exposure times common of the era’s technology, although people being photographed with Wolcott’s invention were still recommended to have “some suitable support for [his] head attached to enable him to remain perfectly still.”
If you felt that wasn’t impressive enough bragging rights for a photographer to boast these days, Tim can also thank Alexander for opening the first portrait studio in March of 1840, and organizing the first photo exhibit held in Washington, D.C. Other photographic Wolcotts of note include Marion Post Wolcott, best known for for the photographs she took during the Great Depression which documented the poverty and desperation of the rural poor, and Horace Wolcott, frontier photographer who died on the job, with most of his photos now lost. Photography is in the Wolcott lineage, and Tim Wolcott is a fine addition to the family passion.
An Iowa native, Tim grew up with a tornado room in his home doubling as a darkroom. The family moved to Wisconsin, where he took art and photography in his senior year of high school. That year he won a blue ribbon and a Gold Key Award in an Eastman Kodak competition. “That changed my life,” recalls Wolcott. “I decided instead of researching nature, I’d photograph nature and landscape.”
After high school, Wolcott moved to California, where, at Santa Monica College, he studied under George Phillips, master black and white printer and friend of Ansel Adams. At this time, Wolcott was also working for fashion photographer Bruce Weber. Wolcott entered a photo in a Carmel photographic competition. The judges mistook the photo for an Ansel Adams photo. When he won, he was introduced to the master himself.
Wolcott credits his grandfather, Harry Wolcott, with starting him on his path to become a landscape photographer. “In the Midwest, one of the things you do in spring is go out and look for morels, a kind of mushroom,” he explains. This and other outdoor activities helped instill a love of nature in him.
Wolcott began his career shooting black and white. In 1985 he started his work with color film, but didn’t change his subject matter or shooting style. Citing Brett Weston and Ansel Adams as his favorite photographers, Wolcott naturally found himself emulating them. “If you were going to be shooting black and white,” he says, “you were going to be compared to the great ones before us. A great color image is really a black and white image in disguise. The color just had to be perfect. Color is very misunderstood. Technically, they’re much more difficult than black and white. I’ve done both. The lighting can be perfect, the composition can be perfect, but if you have too many reds on one side of an image, then you have really poor color composition. If the colors are dull, it doesn’t become very luminous, like in a black and white image. This is why the power of color is so difficult.”
In terms of style, Wolcott says he’s influenced by every photographer who came before him. “I study photography and paintings twenty to thirty hours a week. Both professions are people who study light. George Phillips got me planning and drawing my photographs before I took them. I make notes of things I want to see. I take them with me on location. Today they call it previsualization, but it works, and keeps your creative vision going. Painters do this, too.”
To say Wolcott works hard to achieve his images can’t be overstated. Along with drawing photos before he takes them, he often relies on techniques invented with the advent of the camera. “I’m looking for structure, I’m looking for trees. Nature is about finding perfection in chaos. You have to put those little pieces together. Framing cards are something sorely overlooked. It’s just a four by five hole in a card. They did this in the old days to compose their images perfectly, but also to redefine their compositions. If you look through the hole and it’s eight inches away from your eye, that’s a composition for a 210mm lens. It speeds up your process very quickly. I now carry four different cards: a square format, a four by five, and two panoramic framing cards. Ansel Adams did this. You get to show exactly what you want in the shot, the height of your camera, everything, and you do this with your eye, not the camera. Then you mimic that vision with the camera and pick the focal length that matches that exactly. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the light to get to be the way you want it.”
Wolcott’s images do not come easily, and he’s quite clear the speed and ease of use of digital formats has erased established techniques he relies on every day. “The disciplines are what’s being lost today in photography,” he says. “People want things done easily, and that’s a mistake. Visions need to be captured as they’re seen. If you don’t have the discipline and the passion to make the shot happen, you’re not going to get it. This wild approach of shooting hundreds of photos where you’re just praying you’re gonna get one usable image—that’s fine for sports and wildlife and other moving images, but landscape is a personal and intimate time. You’re waiting for nature to get perfect, and it usually only happens for a very short time. I’ve waited up to six hours in one location for that light to go exactly where I want it to. I usually wait at least two hours. You don’t just walk upon a scene and shoot it.”
Not only must a photographer have patience and apply a thoughtful methodology to shooting as he does, but Wolcott also contends with the wildest uncontrollable force on the planet: nature, and in particular, weather. “Wind is a big enemy in shooting landscapes,” he says. “Great lighting is typically very low lighting. If you’re standing in a forest, it’s often twelve stops of light. I shoot with a Phase One camera, so I can carry twelve stops of light. There’s times when I have to wait two hours because the tree bark is extra dark and the dogwood blossoms are extra white. I don’t want either one of those to blow out. You do have to wait to get these perfect. You’re waiting for everything to get perfect, including the wind. My average shutter speed is six or eight seconds. For nature to hold steady that long, it’s got to be a pretty amazing day.”
Finding the areas he wants to shoot in requires just as much prep work as the actual photography. “When I scout a forest, I create a grid,” says Wolcott. “You find the right trees with the right backdrop, you figure out where the light is going. If I’m shooting something like dogwood trees, we’re scouting that five or six weeks in advance. Then it’s a wait for the tree to get perfect, and hope nature cooperates. Typically, if the sun is up, there’s wind. If the sun is hitting the atmosphere and there’s shadowy areas and bright areas, it creates its own wind.”
Wolcott applies tried and true techniques, but he’s not a luddite. “People rely too much on technology to solve their problems,” he says. “They’ll think, ‘Photoshop will fix it.’ This is what they’re being taught. Is Photoshop a great tool? Of course it is. Would Ansel Adams be using it? Of course he would, but it has to be used in discipline. It can’t be used as an end-all, fix-all. Getting your composition, picking the right depth of field for your shot, picking the right angle, choosing the right focal length of your camera, and then, of course, you’re waiting for the light to be perfect. All of these elements Photoshop cannot fix. If that’s 95% of a photograph, what’s it actually fixing? Yes, you can get rid of litter you can’t remove from the middle of a lake, or other things humans do to our environment to make it look ugly. It can do dodging and burning in color, which you couldn’t do before easily. It takes a lot of discipline to make a photograph as perfect as possible beforehand.”
Although mostly known for his stunning landscapes, Wolcott shot a 2007 project in Antarctica. “I come from the old world,” Wolcott explains, “where a good sturdy tripod and camera are critical. Suddenly I was shooting handheld from a Zodiac, which is moving on the water. Your problem then isn’t the wind, it’s the movement of the boat or your shutter speed. By using the histogram, I could tell there’s no true black in the shot, so I pushed the histogram toward the dark, which sped up my shutter speed by two stops. Since I only needed fifteen feet to infinity, with nothing in front of that, I used hyperfocal distance, and set my camera like the old World War II photographers, and I was able to get my shutter speed up another two stops. That’s significant: I was shooting at 1/180th of a second to 1/220th of second, handheld from a Zodiac. You can only do that with fixed focal length lenses.”
Wolcott cut a unique figure on his voyage to Antarctica, particularly among other photographers. Armed with his Induro tripod and frame cards, he was working in ways alien to the other shooters. They questioned why he didn’t start snapping away with the rest of them. His answer? “I told them I’d rather go back with one or two great ones than hundreds of bad ones. Nature can’t be rushed, nor can a great photograph be rushed.” We couldn’t agree more.
Watch for the second installment of our profile featuring Tim Wolcott’s revolutionary printing of his new book, Along the Water’s Edge, his history with accurate inkjet printing, his creation of the first green gallery, and more.