Katherine Wolkoff’s photographs tell a story of contrasts. The photographer of Audubon’s November-December 2011 cover story, “Life Support,” she traveled to Lake Okeechobee to document the natural beauty of the imperiled waterway that plays such a crucial role in the Everglades ecosystem. In her work, shot from New Orleans to Block Island, she incorporates themes seemingly at odds with each other. Audubon caught up with her to hear about her trip to Florida and what lies ahead.
[video:24461|caption:VIDEO Capturing Lake Okeechobee]
How did you start taking photos for environmental stories?
I did a lot of work after Katrina in New Orleans, but this it probably the first purely environmental story I’ve done. A lot of my work is of the natural world, but this is the first policy story I’ve done.
Did you know what the piece was about before you went down to Lake Okeechobee?
I knew what the story was about, but I was really reacting to my surroundings. The pictures...they’re not policy pictures, and that’s pretty true to my work.
When you say it’s true to your work, what do you mean?
The work that I do doesn’t have a political agenda. It’s just more art-based. I’m more interested in emotional issues than policy issues. I’m not a photojournalist, I’m an artist, so for me to go make pictures in Lake Okeechobee, I respond to what I see, I respond to the people I meet.
What struck you about Lake Okeechobee?
I think that the thing I found so interesting about Lake Okeechobee is the differential between the problems and the beauty. The lotus and the kite. It was a breathtaking place, and yet I know it’s in the middle of this policy problem in Florida. The way that the land transitions into the lake is so beautiful. The beauty struck me, and the way that the development hides the beauty.
How do you plan?
My work is incredibly intuitive. When I get there, my work is so dependent on the light, so it’s all about being up early and out late. There’s no way I could know how the water would look over those lily pads, but I saw them and they surprised me. That’s what I do: I look at things that surprise me or make me think of something I’ve seen before.
How did you get into photography?
I studied American history in college and started taking photographs my senior year, and found that was the way I could express my personal voice in the world. I started off taking pictures of my family, but a lot my pictures are of the landscape environment and the natural world. It was the way that the world made sense to me.
Are there certain shoots that stick out in your mind as being particularly memorable?
I went down to work in New Orleans after I heard this story on NPR about how the trees were drowning. That was the impetus for me to go down. I stayed down there for about a year.
What did you find? Were the trees drowning?
They weren’t drowning, but there was incredible destruction. The trees became weapons. There was all of this violent damage due to the trees, but they were also devastated themselves. There were a lot of conflicting things going on.
I saw that you’re going to have a show on stuffed birds?
On Block Island, Rhode Island, which is a very important spot on the Northeast Flyway, there was this woman at the turn of the century named Elizabeth Dickson who collected and stuffed birds when they died. There’s this great collection that still resides at the school where she worked. On each tag they have the Latin and common name and how it died, so they say, “Death by cat,” or “Died in the lighthouse,” “Died on a telephone wire.” The oldest bird in the collection is from the 1890s. I photographed the whole collection, 178, in silhouettes to give them an alive feeling, and also because of the importance of the silhouette in birding and identifying birds in the sky. The collection is really interesting because Elizabeth Dickens used them on the island in the school and created this culture of environmentalism on the island that still exists today.
Did you expect yourself to be taking photographs of the natural world?
No. It’s such an amazing gift to get paid to make photographs. I consider the work that I make to be artwork, so the idea of being sent on assignment to make these kinds of pictures is breathtaking to me. It’s unbelievable.
Do you think that you’ll continue taking photographs of the environment?
Oh yeah. It’s really an important part in who I am. My father worked for The Nature Conservancy for 30 years, and my mother is a science teacher, so this is my way of doing what they taught me about.