Don Wolfe – The Key Element

One only has to see how he progresses with restoring and improving his Matfield Green second home to know his sense of quality and perfection are practically unbeatable. No details escape him. Meanwhile, his ability to recognize and apply esthetic values is no less remarkable. He builds his photography in the same way as he improves his house: thoughtful of what he wants the outcome to be; meticulous in the execution; never speeding up the process however anxious he may be to see results.

Don Wolfe, from Overland Park, Kansas, is an engineer by training and former profession. His sideline from days long forgotten was photography and his work was “only hesitantly,” he says, presented to juries for shows. Today, he is a professional photographer who still hesitates to introduce himself as a professional photographer, even though photography has his attention most of the time.

Don’s Overland Park home’s interior, long finished, expresses his sense of esthetics as well as his love of photography. Bookshelves galore, and most of them are sighing under what can be recognized as the history of photography from its crude beginnings through the high times of greater camera and print perfection to its revolutionary digital phase. The walls show a couple of his own favorites and a few most interesting, rather brilliant, photographs he picked up for purchase here and there. “My work, both in what pictures I take and how I present them, is really derived from what I would call ‘traditional’ black and white photography,” says Don. “If you look at the work of, say, Dorothea Lang or Walker Evans, Depression Era photographers, and more contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, these are the images that have the most impact on the pictures I take. l love going to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in K.C. and wandering around the room where they have the old black and white photography on display. Just wandering and wondering.”

“I really don’t remember how I got started on photography. Growing up, there were always cameras around. My parents had little Kodak Instamatics. I remember an uncle who had 35 mm, which we all thought was pretty cool; at family get-togethers he would show slides. My brother got really interested in photography after he graduated from college; he created his own dark room.

I guess this was what pushed me–the dark room fascinated me. I learned the process and set up my own dark room in the bathroom of my college apartment.”Later, Don drifted away to pursue other interests, but he came back with a vengeance about ten years ago. This may explain his continuing of shooting primarily film. He clearly enjoys the process of developing and slowly discovering what his camera’s lens has seen that his eye in the viewfinder missed. “Even though I am now doing a sort of hybrid between the old wet dark room and the new digital dark room, I am still interested by the process. I know that digital is here to stay, but film will never completely disappear.”

What defines a good photograph? “That’s a tough one,” Don says. “Let me come at it from a slightly different direction: why do I shoot black and white? Not just for old times’ sake. I think there are a lot of pictures where color gets in the way of actually seeing what the photograph is about. From a compositional standpoint when you strip away the color what you have left are things such as texture, line, shape, shadow, and what is possibly the key element:  emotion. From a technical standpoint a good black and white photograph has a certain radiance about it, but you have to get everything right, the lighting, the exposure, the development, the printing. Only then a black and white photograph will glow.”

Having a second home in Matfield Green, in the heart of the Flint Hills, is most definitely a move back to his rural roots. “After spending most of my adult life in the city, it’s nice to be able to transition back to the country. Being able to spend time on the tallgrass prairie allows me to relax and be more leisurely about taking pictures. I have time to study and think about subjects for my photography, and go back to locations at different times of the day to pick the shot I want.” It also gives Don the time to dig deeper into what makes the Flint Hills the Flint Hills.
“I am able to look more closely at the parts and pieces that make up this giant puzzle of the Flint Hills. No question, this is splendid, magic, unique country.”