Klaus Lange was having lunch recently at Z Café, on Auto Row in Oakland. Lange, who is a merchant seaman, a chef, and a photographer, has an exhibit of his photographs in the café through April. The images of the scraped and weathered sides of ships' hulls are remarkable works of abstract art. And, in addition to the exhibit in Oakland, his work has shown, or is currently on display, in Hamburg, London, Tokyo, Toronto, and soon Panama.
Lange is a tall, 64-year-old man with an imposing presence. This day, he was dressed all in black. With his salt-and-pepper beard and soft German accent, he looks and sounds every bit the crusty sailor; except that his conversation flows back and forth between art and cooking to the point that one wonders if he distinguishes between the two. Before placing his order for lunch, he described for the waitress a menu idea for baked salmon filets. "Sounds great, Klaus," she said. After ordering a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup, he looked around the restaurant and remarked, "I liked their attitude with the menu, so I had no problem linking up with them."
Lange works four-day turnarounds as a chef aboard a station boat that cruises back and forth, 24-hours a day, about halfway between the Farallons and the Golden Gate, waiting for a ship. When one approaches, Lange's vessel moves alongside it, and a pilot scrambles up a rope ladder to guide the freighter in past the large sandbar and through the various currents that mark the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. When a ship leaves the bay, Lange's boat (and, since 9-11, a federal sea marshal as well,) moves in to take the pilot off. The transfer is made while both vessels are underway. "Sometimes it gets pretty hairy; everything is moving up and down, you know."
While the two ships are within a few feet of each other, Lange makes art: "I just look out the window and say, “Yeah, I like this shape, I grab my camera, which is lying right on the windowsill there, step outside, ..click, click, click, I come back inside. Fifteen seconds, it's done." When asked how he chooses which portion of the gigantic hull to photograph, he said, "That's just pure inspiration at the moment. Because I don't have time to think, I only have fifteen seconds." Around a bite of his sandwich, he added, "I don't have time to ponder." Throughout the meal, Lange kept up a constant stream of recipes and sea lore. As he ate, he rattled off recipes for warm scallop salad with ginger dressing, salmon tartar, chicken breast with lemon zest, blackened striped bass and club sandwiches.
Interspersed with this, he spoke of his photography. "I have to be out there, and picking my groove. Of doing the art that is at sea, that nobody else gets to see, motifs that travel years and years around the world without anybody paying attention to them, until they show up in front of my camera. And here they are. And they would have been in oblivion still, if it hadn't been for me out there." Lange began photographing the sides of ships about four years ago. As the freighters criss-cross the ocean, their hulls scrape past wharfs, against tugboats and are weathered by storm and seawater. The ships are painted and repainted; the layers exposed by wear and tear and the resulting shapes and colors form the basis of Lange's art. He made his image "Journey To Soft Places" in 2004. "I see definitely a person, looking over his or her shoulder, wandering into something that is, uh, there's still adventure ahead. But it's not a static picture. So, finding scenes like this, that's my joy right now."
After lunch, on the way to his Emeryville apartment, Lange mentioned that he recently returned from Panama where he was photographing vessels passing through the canal. "The beginnings of my soon-to-be-famous Panama Collection," he said, smiling. In his home, prints of his photography are hung side-by-side framed menus from the many places he has cooked. This year Lange has an exhibit scheduled aboard the cruise ship Europa, and he's going along as a sort of celebrity chef. Aboard the station boat, Lange is free to prepare whatever he likes for the crew. On this day, the weather outside was foggy and cold. "If I need to write a menu for today, I look out the window. What does it tell me? Well, that looks, if I'm out on the ocean, this looks like split pea soup, it looks like baked ham, roast chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, a nice grilled fish. Totally simple. There's nothing festive about this; there's nothing exotic about this weather. This is like, comfy. Sometimes I wake up, and it's like somebody poured oil on the ocean, not even a ripple on there, and blue sky. I say, "Hey, man, Jamaica! Is this Jamaica on the horizon?" They say, “No, Klaus, it's.. “No, it's Jamaica,” I say. So now we're going into jerk chicken and stuff where I'm borrowing from Cajun cooking, blackened stuff, good, blackened fish."
Then, looking at an image on the wall, he said, "My images are very approachable. A ship's hull is like a great expressionist canvas. Through my work I offer a new way to see abstract painting, and at the same time, a new way to see photography." He paused and added, "No ship owner wants to know that their ship looks like this. They'd be insulted. They don't want to know. They're in denial about that." Lange has gotten to know the ships that make regular runs in and out of San Francisco quite well. Has he seen the same image twice? "Oh, yes. Sometimes the ship comes by, “Oh, my God, it's an old friend,.. you know. I just recognize it. And I can see how it's changing."
Klaus W. Lange, of San Francisco, presents "Sea-Worn Stories," a collection of color photographs depicting the weathered and worn hulls of ships in extreme close-up. His imagery directly depicts a record of time and energy. Through the lens, Lange captures distressed painted steel, presenting an intimate look at what most people will never see. Lange reveals to the viewer intense and dramatic abstract imagery, and the grand power of an ever-moving force - the sea.
A merchant seaman, Klaus Lange works and photographs aboard a San Francisco pilot boat, and occasionally a Panama Canal tugboat. His time spent working alongside the mammoth ships that traverse these waterways led him to photograph the passing sides. He states, "To me, a ship's hull is like an expressionist canvas with portrayals of physical struggle and natural beauty in which I find stories told by the ship's own paint."
RiverSea Gallery displays "Through the Layers of Time," paintings by Nicholas Knapton and photographs by Klaus Lange, Oct. 14 through Nov. 7. Meet the artists at the opening reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, and enjoy live music by Ned Heavenrich and Dan Sutherland.
RiverSea Gallery is open daily at 1160 Commercial St.
Every ships hull tells a story, a painted one, that reveals a narrative in the abstract. Seaman and artist Klaus Lange focuses his camera on this wonderful narrative. The ships sea-worn hull, like a painted canvas, is the product of much life spent, much time passed, and much potential beauty found in the interim. It is a most poetic container of time and record that Lange’s camera brings into focus. His photographic images find the sublime in physical struggle and natural beauty. In such a way, his work references modernist abstraction. Yet, his work is a photographic representation of paint -- optically not unlike a Jules Olitski or Clifford Still painting.
Lange’s work delicately transforms ships water-worn, sea-affected finish, into a heroic skin of painted abstraction. In essence, he finds and highlights intriguing moments of abstraction at sea. In this way his work is quite traditional, yet Lange’s unique subject matter, photographed paint, makes his work quite radical as well. Lange’s photographs are a simultaneous indulgence in, and criticism of, painterly expression. It is a rethinking of painting and photography as visual mechanics. He offers a new way to see abstract painting, and simultaneously, a new way to see photography.
Lange puts forth a new type of painting meta-narrative, the story of nature diminishing materiality, told through abstract photography. Quite amazing are the inventive and seemingly purposeful forms that the sea has worn onto certain ships. Lange’s abstraction is a thoughtful look at these stunning formations. Once mounted onto canvas, the photographic element of Lange’s work becomes less apparent.
What initially appears to be a painting, upon second look is seen as a photographic print. The mounting and presentation of these photographs is a poignant commentary on painting, whereby the ships sea-worn story is told like that of an abstract expressionists.