Wednesday, November 19, 2008

December Artist: Coming into Focus

William Wolberg is a doctor and professor emeritus with the departments of surgery and human oncology at UW–Madison. But he’s also an accomplished photographer dedicated to showing the beauty of the southern Wisconsin landscape through its details, shapes and ever-changing light.

A series of Wolberg’s nature photographs is on display through December 30 at the UW Arboretum Steinhauer Trust Gallery in a show called Prairie Portraits.

Wolberg offers some reflections on the challenges and triumphs of his work.

On his interest in nature …

My childhood home in Nakoma had endless woods and pasture as a backyard. As I roamed through the Arboretum, I had the good fortune to observe some of the icons of nature ecology at work. This, together with an interest in hunting and fishing, formed a foundation for my appreciation of the out-of-doors.

On his start in photography …

Because of my scientific interest, I became an academic surgeon and led a very structured and demanding life. The scientific world of academic surgery is objective and discoveries are analyzed statistically. When I ventured into the photographic world and using my scientific background, I naively tried to understand what constituted a perfect photograph. To my disappointment, I found that photographic evaluation defied scientific methodology. The perfect photograph does not exist because photography is subjective and each photograph is seen differently by each person. So I lowered my goals and set to learn not what constituted a perfect photo but rather what made one acceptable.  

On the landscape …

I found that my favorite, landscape-nature, photography ranked way down on the contemporary critics’ hierarchal scale. In contrast, the eleventh century Chinese artists ranked landscapes on top of their hierarchal scale. Why the decreased popularity?

I believe that part of the explanation lies with the observer since photography is communication between the photographer and the observer. Regardless of how the photographer feels, the bottom line is that the perfect photograph exists only in the eye of the beholder. The observers’ feelings are determined to a great extent by the observers’ past experience. I’m attracted to landscape-nature photography because of the intellectual renewal that I experienced during my wilderness treks.

On the success of a photograph …

To quote Ansel Adams, “Either the photograph speaks to a viewer or it does not. I cannot demand that anyone receive from the image just what was in my visualization at the time of exposure. I believe that if I am able to express what I saw and felt, the image will contain qualities that may provide a basis for imaginative response by the viewer.”

My sense of photographic accomplishment comes from the elation that I experience when I discover a new scene, feel its presence, snap the shutter and print the photograph. After this, I can only hope that picture will evoke similar feelings in the viewer.

Photographs are by William Wolberg and courtesy of the UW Arboretum Steinhauer Trust Gallery.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The December issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• In our special pet section, learn about Marcia Sparks, a local painter who renders dogs and cats in a vibrant Pop style.
• A profile on Leotha Stanley, who leads the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir each year in the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas Spectacular.
• A poem by Cathy Conger (listen to her poetry podcast).
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts, exhibitions and festivals taking place in December.

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