Looking at life through a different lens
November 3, 2006
Before moving to the Roaring Fork Valley two years ago, Karl Wolfgang had spent 15 years in Los Angeles as a union cameraman, working primarily on commercials and music videos. The life was intense and challenging; when I asked the 41-year-old Wolfgang where in L.A. he lived, he laughed and said, “Everywhere,” then mentioned spots from Santa Monica to Laguna Beach.”The first thing that comes to mind,” said Wolfgang, about his California existence, “was, it was 18 hours, 14 hours, 16 hours, back to back, for years. I went all over the world – a couple of times.”In a way, the work Wolfgang did in Los Angeles matched the lifestyle: fast cuts, constant motion. And, to Wolfgang, there was an artificiality to it all, a sense that he was making work and living a life that didn’t delve much beyond the surface of things. Of the cinematography he did in L.A., he says, it was “lens tricks, editing tricks that really shaped the way people look at things.”Wolfgang’s observations are not meant as a total put down of Los Angeles and the sort of camerawork he did there. The level of artistry was high: “There are a lot of people really challenging each other.” And he praises Angelenos as a whole for living their lives with more depth than they generally get credit and under what he sees as tough circumstances. But after 15 years, Wolfgang, a native of suburban Michigan, tired of the jungle and sought to restore balance to his life and work by moving to Basalt.”When I moved here, I was so weighed down with the glad hand, the facade,” he said. “The entertainment business is a weird thing.”
Karl Wolfgang’s father, Richard, is a fine-art painter who also kept a darkroom in the family home. Karl started his training in photography as a sixth-grader in that darkroom. But after studying liberal arts at Michigan State, still photography became more of a serious hobby, while he earned his living from motion photography – first in Chicago and then Los Angeles.Recovering from his case of Southern California burnout has meant not only a geographic relocation, but a switch in medium to go with it. Since arriving in the valley – and eventually settling in Basalt, where he lives in a 340-square-foot, 1898 miner’s cabin he is renovating – Wolfgang has made still photography his occupation. He has done editorial work and fashion shoots. He is also working on a coffee-table book of images he made several years ago on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, a project that has eased his transformation from moving to static photography.Wolfgang’s more purely artistic side will be on display in the Aspen Art Museum’s Colorado Biennial, Part II. The second part of the Biennial, which opens with a reception Thursday, Nov. 9, and runs through Nov. 26, features six Colorado artists: Woody Creek photographer George Stranahan and Denver photographer Kevin O’Connell; Denverites Evan Hecox and Jenna Wilson, who paint and make prints; and Senga Nengudi, who makes landscapelike installations.Wolfgang’s work in the Biennial come from two separate series of photographs. One series focuses on the trailers and trailer parks that are a prominent part of the Basalt landscape. The other series comprises large-scale abstracts printed from the ends of rolls of film he has used for other purposes.The latter series is, in part, a means for Wolfgang to reconnect, in a very tangible way, with the tactile medium of film. The images, blown up to four 4-by-3-foot prints, reveal the colors that bleed into the film ends, the scratches and marks that photographers usually try to eliminate.”That whole approach came about because I work so closely with digital now,” he said. “When I look at filmstrips now, I’m so enamored with the imperfections of a contemporarily perfected medium. It’s going to be missed, because we will never see it again. It’s exotic.”The trailers of Basalt, on the other hand, don’t look exotic. Wolfgang’s intention was not sociological; his trailer images have nothing in common with the spate of photographic essays on the trailer camps that have emerged along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.”I’m not communicating poverty,” said Wolfgang. “I’m communicating beauty. It’s really about light.”Shooting sometimes through his car window, Wolfgang made the images using super-long exposures. The various lights he captured – fluorescent streetlights, porch lights, a TV on next door – have an almost magical quality.”I’m really into color temperature,” he said. “It creates this whole generated world. It’s soaking up minutes of color, so you’re seeing it in a way you wouldn’t normally see.”
When Wolfgang came into my office and saw my own dilettantish collection of concert photographs, the first thing he told me was that his father was a banjo player who used to bring Karl to bluegrass festivals.”It was pretty honest living, real shit,” said Wolfgang. “I didn’t have that in day-to-day living in suburban Michigan.”
The photographs he is showing in the Biennial are intended to connect Wolfgang back to that feeling, to separate him from the years of calculated slickness in Los Angeles.The film-end images, said Wolfgang, are not meant as nostalgia; the abstract look is too modern for that. There is, however, an element of simplicity to them.”I’m not trying to shock anybody, or penetrate them with a new thought,” said Wolfgang, who made the images using a hand-crank camera. “It’s honest.”The trailer images, too, Wolfgang sees as an exercise in simplicity. They come from him simply observing the environment that surrounds him daily, and keeping his eyes open for natural settings that catch his eye.”I approach that very childlike,” he said. “My intention for that is, if someone says, ‘I saw one of your trailer photos and looked at the trailers in a whole new way’ – that’s a great compliment.”But Wolfgang sees a dilemma here. His quest for simplicity, for the childlike, has been irreversibly tainted by Los Angeles living, by 15 years in the entertainment industry, by having become a skilled photographer. Wolfgang has spent too much time building up the ability to make viewers see what he wants them to see, rather than what is just there. A part of Wolfgang embraces that; he doesn’t have much appreciation for point-and-shoot photographers who aim for documenting everyday experiences. Another part of him knows that that sort of innocence is probably beyond him now.”I’m bringing years of experience,” he said. “I’m bringing a Karl Wolfgang photograph to the experience. Even if you proudly say, ‘I don’t use Photoshop; I just go out and shoot,’ as a professional, you’re bringing yourself to the table. People want you to make them look good.
“My big thing is, photographs are always trying to go for truth,” he continued. “I want to take an honest photograph. And for me, as a mindful adult with a tool I know how to use, that honesty is gone. The only honest photograph I can come up with is a child picking up a camera and shooting. That’s honest.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org