Bruce Wolf | A Little Profile on A Big Photographer
Floyd’s coffee shop in Portland’s Old Town is a darkish place where wild things happen. Not fast, in the buff, debauched, and crazy things, but those quietly important things that might change lives, sway the course of simple histories, and have the potential to effect people in new and profound ways. In a politely incognito sort of way, lattes are drunk, spicy Chai’s are nursed, dark espressos slide into mouths, the soothing pleasures of liquid darkness perking even the most exhausted. It is the perfect place to meet someone of great importance when being noticed is not the goal.
Into this den of caffeine bracketed by the establishment’s solidly brick walls, photographer extraordinaire, Bruce Wolf agreed to meet me one summer afternoon to discuss his recent course offering Light and Color: Tools of the Trade as part of the UO in Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts Summer in the City program. Wolf is known on a global scale for his work with light and color, so meeting him in a place where the light was incandescent dim and the color comfortably amber-to-russet seemed like an interesting prospect. Maybe seeking someplace with a trifle more natural light, and after ordering our coffees, we decided to move out into the minimalisticly bland en plein air courtyard, where the daylight seemed a bit more of an appropriate place.
Let’s start with some background. UO in Portland Summer in the City is the brainchild of Kate Wagle, director of the UO in Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts and interim vice provost. Familiar with Wolf’s reputation as a photographer, Wagle wasted no time incorporating Wolf into the summertime Portland programming. Notable in many respects, the UO Portland Summer in the City program is the brooding place of many a lauded professional in the design fields reaching out to stretch their pedagogical wings, discover talent and share creative insight. Instructing a course with the Summer in the City program assures a small, focused group of students eager to gather experience and expertise during a few summer weeks spent in the company of creatives otherwise unavailable. It might be a short season, (summer in Oregon usually is) but it is without a doubt a rare and wonderful opportunity to access a wealth of knowledge and experience these experts deliver. Indeed, Wolf fit right in surrounded by other exceptional creatives who partner each summer with the UO to teach at the White Stag Block as their schedules and professional work permits. Wolf’s first foray into instructing anyone but seasoned professional photographers (which he has done often having taught at The Maine Photographic Workshop, and the International Center for Photography in NYC, as well as guest lecturing for Harvard University’s Photography Department) began with Summer in the City 2011 and his “A Journey into Yourself with a Camera.” This summer, 2012, he offered Light and Color: Tools of the Trade, welcoming anyone with an open mind and an enthusiasm for photography.
And, so here I was this warm, sunny afternoon at Floyd’s, face-to-face with this photographer, and not just any photographer, but BRUCE WOLF; I was eager to discover just who he is and what his work is all about. Although his humble appearance, worn jeans and plain white tee shirt, might make him fade into the Portland Old Town crowd, his modest looks reveal little of his importance, an engaging counterpart to the work and reputation Wolf has. At Floyd’s, Wolf entered, and ordered our coffees. No one applauded, no one rushed over for an autograph, no one stared, no one pulled out a camera to take his picture. He is just a plain guy…..well, not really. I asked Bruce to talk about his images from an aesthetic viewpoint and to chat about his extensive experience in the field of advertising photography.
In print, Wolf is often referred to as “a legendary photographer,” “the master of believable artificial light,” and “truly one of the best.” His work is praised as “timeless and creative” and as fusing “life, mystery, and narrative.” Look at any of Wolf’s photographs and you will see grace, and an exquisite and luxurious use of light, even if what you are looking at is only the inanimate objects of a well-equipped kitchen. Each Bruce Wolf image incorporates a sense of photographic artistry while seamlessly blending a mastery of digital technology, an understanding intellect and a sense of discerning empathy. His images are of quiet and solitude, whatever is the subject is the focus, lucid and without distraction.
Perhaps existentially affirming, Wolf’s architectural and interior photos, in particular, are surreal in pristine perfection. The more of Wolf’s work you examine and admire, the more you realize his preference for images intentionally devoid of human presence, literally. There is space for a person, and an invitation to engage with the image, but usually no identifiable human within the image. As viewer, you wander into his photographs by yourself, no one else is needed. These photos compel you to visualize yourself in the setting, a place where you feel you could fit comfortably alone. A motorbike in a studio, a refrigerator in a kitchen, a chair in front of windows, a long country road in rainy navy-blue darkness, a gorgeous plate of food: each carefully planned image takes you to a place. You may have a look for yourself, here.
Wolf commented that he feels his images have a sense of “being lonely,” but is this loneliness or an opportunity to merge yourself with a product, a place, a meal? Put yourself in the picture, with no one else yet there, it is without complications. Maybe that is the genius possessed by the brilliant commercial photographer: he takes us places, we put ourselves and our dreams in his sets. It is that simple. But how is Wolf such a master at the illusion of welcoming place, and of transporting us to that place with a two-dimensional image? His ability to work with a palette of color, to infuse with light and to manipulate both to evoke a feeling is the stuff his legend is made of.
With over 40 years of experience to call upon, it is no surprise that Wolf’s eye for detail and mindfulness of the aperture’s cooperative capacity with the shutter to let in a fraction-of-a-moment’s flood of light-bathed, meaningful observation has been very keenly and benevolently developed. The fact that his images seem to be coaxed with a sense of emotion, and delicate comprehension of both subject and setting through his lens, past any filter, and into waiting digital sensors is, really quite remarkable. The emotional saturation of Wolf’s work becomes complete with touches from “today’s darkroom” says Wolf, graciously offering a nod to technological innovations as being a crucial part of his toolbox. He continues, “the interpretation of the moment is told” or gains that extra tinge of meaning and implication with thoughtful brushes from Photoshop, the program (or “darkroom”) allowing him to interpret an image to get it exactly to the point where the setting matches the intention of telling a story. Long before the pixels are exposed to digital manipulation on Wolf’s computer screen, hours of set-up, preparation and contemplation have gone into a project. Once the camera is poised, steadily mounted atop a tripod, flags or reflectors in place, and readings taken of light, color cards peered at through the lens, only then is the image ready to be captured. Wolf takes a slow, methodical, and languishly unrushed amount of time to stare into his viewfinder, visualizing the subject, contemplating the final outcome.
I know all this partly because following our coffee-talks, I asked Wolf if I could observe him on location, on a real assignment, commercial-style. Wolf allowed me to visit him while on location for a restaurant advertising project in North Portland at Yakuza. He was meticulous….with everything. Each press of the shutter release came across as a thoughtful and careful opportunity to capture something of greatness. The process takes hours. Invariably, the outcome is stunningly beautiful: elegance saturated with sensuous quantities of light and color, but yet remaining “natural.” [He let me steal peeks at his nearby laptop once he transferred images there.] It is this unique approach to the mixture of science and art, of light and color that pervades Wolf’s work and is testimony to a soulful understanding of elements we sometimes take for granted, the luminescence from the sun, and how that illuminousity reflects off a surface potentially bringing a sense of story-telling to an image.
Largely self-taught in the field of photography, Wolf partly credits his educational background in physics as enhancing his opinions and understanding of light (he earned his degree in physics from the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute). His lifelong passion for photography might have developed from an early childhood exposure to art history—namely the volume by Janson & Janson, The Story of Painting for Young People (1952). Charmingly and honestly acknowledging a childhood interest in the paintings that depicted body parts and barbarity, Wolf recalls being even more impressed, visually awakened, if you will, by the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. Even as a young kid, in these masterpieces, Wolf recognized a use of light and color to show what was there, a hinting at what was underneath, what was in the shadow, or what could be gleaned from the play of light upon a surface. In those moments of observation, the desire to find a medium he could translate a similar understanding of light and color to eventually led to a career in photography. Apparently, Wolf became a photographer also “on the advice from ‘Bultaco’ Barney, motorcycle mechanic.” But that’s a whole other story, that we will not go into here. In any case, apart from an interest in photography, Wolf cites his two “other great interests” as science and math: forever inked into the underside of his burly forearms, a hydrogen atom on one (the first element in the periodic table), and the infinity symbol on the other (forever into perpetua).
I asked Wolf to comment on his work over the last 40 years. His is a long career and no where near to winding down– spanning successes from his early days in his Manhattan studio, to his years in Paris shooting advertising and interiors for glossy European magazines, to decades as a photographer shooting projects for publications such as House and Garden and New York magazine. The early years took up the decades fanning out of the 1970s. The work poured in. Wolf was in high demand with clients like Martex, Karasttan Carpets, Thomasville, Spiegel, Marlboro, Eve cigarettes, Viking, Jenn Air, G.E., and Acura, among others; and on the go-to list of renowned art directors, like Jim Sebastian, Cheryl Heller, Jerry Della Famina, Tommy Kane, Barbara Barnes, and more. His magazine layouts expanded to include projects for Child Magazine, Metropolitan Home, Shelter, and Martha Stewart Living. He completed projects for Vogue, and Architectural Digest. Branching out from still life, interiors and architecture, Wolf was asked to do jobs where his expertise as a director for television commercials and cinematography were called upon. His reputation for creating an exquisite visual environment for his subjects obtained a worldwide following. In the 1990s, Wolf worked on projects alongside Helmet Newton and Bill Silano for a Johnnie Walker “Gallery Series,” an infamous poster project displayed on the walls of the Japanese subway system; and created advertising campaigns for clients as diverse as Burger King and Perry Ellis. The list of accomplishments goes on and on. He flourished in all areas, lending his unique sense of lingering observation, careful attention to detail and, that quality so recognizable in his work, an ability to “duplicate the sun.”
In 2009, with so much success and a career still going strong, Bruce Wolf gathered up his family and made the pilgrimage west to Portland putting a whole nation of Americana inbetween him and his connections and networks in New York. But this is the age of enlightened communication and Wolf’s ties to the Big Apple were only really a quick electronic communication or airplane flight away. If anything, he gave his work an opportunity to thrive in a new environment and to discover a Pacific coast audience. The requests to work would continue, the list of clients, too.
The Wolf family now call Portland their permanent home. Moving to Portland, brought the Wolfs close to long-time family friend and Portland creative extraordinaire, John Jay, executive creative director and partner of the Wieden + Kennedy advertising agency. Wolf also counts Jay among the art directors he has had the privilege of working with.
In 2009, some of Wolf’s Portland work was introduced to an audience of gallery-goer’s who saw his much-debated “Oregon Journal” series. It was described as “a mysterious series of landscape photos.” That same year, Wolf’s images of the remains of small creatures killed and maimed by any one of his 33 cats mesmerized audiences in an eclectic Southern California exhibit [See DeathbyCat, evoking a range of contexts: taxidermy-cum-Smithsonian’esque natural history, that sort of it may be nature morte, but it is still life mood, the subjects having been tossed about and blessed by the love of Wolf’s own domesticated pets]. Transgressing from small deceased bloody vermin, to something more suburbanly perceived as sophisticated and urbane, Wolf has even aimed his lens across rooms with a view we thought we’d never glimpse (he was commissioned to document Martha Stewart’s own home remodel).
With such an illustrious background, Bruce Wolf is something of an enigma. He is a New Yorker, through and through telling me he is “from The Bronx.” I was expecting a New Yorker blase attitude or a heavily tainted East Coast accent, a bit gritty and unpolished. But, he is delightfully pleasant. He is friendly and lowkey, approachable. He is kind and conversant, with a strength in gentleness and calmness one imagines he has made good use of in the high powered, competitive world of commercial photography. The opportunity to sit down and chat with Wolf made it pretty obvious how he has managed to achieve his “nice guy” reputation. He is just that, nice. He is easy to talk to, completely unpretentious. We chatted those afternoons for some time: Wolf revealing in anecdotal style snipets of adventure and encounters from the images contained in his vast portfolio, which at this point, was beginning to sound a little like a Who’s Who of the rich, famous and well-built, in both individuals and objects. Wolf blends comfortably into a Portlandia proletariat ethos, artisanal and casually counterculture. He will enthusiastically speak of being more down-to-earth hippie than fast-paced, big city materialist. It was charming and endearing that the only technology he pulled out during our conversations was his smartphone, tapping and joggling it to retrieve family snapshots, which, I noted were exquisite even on the small screen of his smartphone. He will discuss science, math, art, government, and society with a gracious intellect, a liberal charm and a humble aesthetic. He will discuss photography on a level he senses his listener is comfortable with.
On this particular day, the sun was settling in behind the brick courtyard of Floyd’s, we’d been chatting the afternoon away. Prompted by my inquisitive comments, he continues, I listen, somewhat enthralled, but definitely not starstruck and keeping a level head. He offhandedly mentions, quietly, like he’s slipping in another order for a black coffee, “Oh, did I tell you about the time….” I lean in, this is going to be good, I know. I feel like Po the Panda, face-to-face with the sage wisdom of Shifu, I must keep quiet and listen. Wolf doesn’t disappoint, I get to hear about when he photographed John Lennon, twice in the 1970s. And President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, for a Christmas card. With a sly and mischievous grin, Wolf’s “nice guy” personality shines through as bright and captivating as the light in any of his stunning architectural sets. “Want to know what I said to them?” he asks. Of course, I do. . . .