50 years of photography for Don Wolf
Photo by DON WOLF
By BRANT STACY
Kansan Staff Writer
Don Wolf has experienced a lot of powerful moments during his lifetime.
Wolf, a local photographer and Kansas City, Kan., native will display his 50 years of photography at the Strawberry Hill Museum, 720 N. Fourth St., from noon to 5 p.m. beginning today. The exhibit will also be on display Sunday and continue on Saturday's and Sunday's until July 30. Wolf said the exhibit will give him an opportunity to share with friends and family the extent of his work.
"For the first time in my life, I have an opportunity to share with my friends, clients and family my experiences," he said. "So many people have fragmented concepts of what I do. They don't really understand. This will be a chance to show them the scope of my work."
Wolf began his career as a photographer when he was 14 years old, he said. One of the first pictures he took was of the 1951 flood in Kansas City, Kan. He said he photographed the area using a camera that his uncle, Johnny, brought him from World War II. In 1956, he joined the Navy, serving as an aerial photographer for two years aboard the U.S.S. Kearsage, he said. During his time on the ship, he would shoot pictures of landings, take-offs, and officer portraits. He also said one of his most treasured shots he ever took was aboard this ship.
"I was asked by the captain to photograph our ship heading back from Japan to the United States," Wolf said. "In order to do that, I told the captain we needed to turn it around because of the sun. It costs $12,000 to do this, but it was one of the most powerful moments in my whole life."
Before Wolf initially became a crewmember upon the U.S.S. Kearsage, he was given an opportunity by the Navy to enroll in college. Between graduating from high school and his first year at Donnelly College, in KCK, he said he spent the summer in photography school.
"In 1955, I spent the summer in Oakland, Calif., in photo school," Wolf said. "Then, I went to Donnelly and upon graduation in 1956, I went aboard the U.S.S. Kearsage."
After two years at sea, Wolf returned to Kansas City, Kan., in the fall of 1958, to begin his career as a commercial photographer. He said his first professional camera was a 4-by-5 speed graphic camera that he used to photograph famous faces and his travels throughout the world. He said he has photographed presidents Harry S. Truman and Richard Nixon, as well as singer, Tony Bennett and actress, singer and dancer, Ginger Rogers. He said in 1979, he brought his camera along to Croatia when he went to visit his grandparents. In later years, he said he went on a European tour with former Kansas City, Kan., mayor Carol Marinovich.
Several years later, Wolf said he purchased two large studio cameras, a Sinar 4-by-5 and a Sinar 8-by-10 that he only used in his first studio he had for 25 years called Wolf Photography. These cameras he used to photograph everything from furniture to automobiles.
"I had Wolf Photography for about 25 years," Wolf said. "I then sold it because I thought I was going to die at 64 like my father did."
After Wolf sold his business, he said he realized that he was 64 and still alive. He went to Johnson County Community College for several years to teach studio lighting, and during that time he received numerous calls asking him to restart his business. He contemplated the idea for awhile, then decided to get things rolling again.
"I called up several people that used to work for me, and a friend and we put the business back together again," Wolf said. "This business we called New Vision Photography, which is still located in a 15,000 square-foot building at 3117 Merriam Lane in Kansas City, Kan."
Wolf said he has been at this studio for about 20 years. He said the new studio is great for photographing large objects because it is so big. He said he works with a lot of clients who bring their products to his studio for him to photograph.
Pat Malinak, studio manager for New Vision photography, said she met Wolf 20 years ago while she was working as a model. She said the first time he spoke to her he used a Croatian greeting.
"Since his family is of Croatian descent he thought I was, because of my last name," Malinak said. "I joined his staff at Wolf Photography as a production manager until he closed it."
Malinak said a few years ago, Wolf called her asking if he could use her studio she had recently purchased at 3117 Merriam Lane. She said she agreed, and since then she, Wolf and the original members of Wolf Photography came back together to create New Vision Photography.
"We all just fell back together two and a half years ago," Malinak said.
Malinak said she has always been impressed by Wolf's incredible energy. She said she is constantly amazed of how well liked he is.
"He's a very benevolent man, and I respect him for that," Malinak said. "All of his images I love. It's hard to just choose one."
Matthew Fey, an account executive with J. Schmid Associates, a direct marketing agency, said he and his company have worked with Wolf for quite a few years. He said Wolf does a lot of photography for catalogs and direct mail pieces.
"He has provided us with stellar photography over the years," Fey said. "He is the man we turn to when we need incredible catalog shots."
Fey said he considers he and Wolf's relationship both a professional and friendly one. He said a lot of people at his office attribute a grandfatherly figure to him, and are impressed by the level of quality and professionalism he brings to his work.
"He's just a humble master and down to earth," Fey said. "His level of knowledge is sublime."
Nate Accardo, chief executive officer and chairman of Custom Colors, is another one of Wolf's clients, who has also been a friend and former 15-year partner of Wolf's since the 1960s. He said over the years Wolf's work has done nothing but gotten better.
"He has a great attitude about what he does and it comes through in his photography," Accardo said. "After 50 years few people are still excited about their work, and he is."
Accardo said he wouldn't miss the exhibit down at the museum. He said he respects Wolf's creativity and his willingness to do what it takes.
"He's a good guy and extremely creative," Accardo said. "His attitude separates him from the rest of the world."
Adrienne Nastav, a volunteer at the Strawberry Hill Museum, who is helping Wolf set up his exhibit, said Wolf has always been involved with the museum through its Croatian exhibit. She said he has donated many of his family photos and pictures he took while in Croatia to the museum.
"Besides his Croatian photos, he has helped raise $700,000 for orphanages in Croatia," Nastav said. "He even adopted a child during the war and brought her back to the United States. When it was safe, he returned her back home."
Nastav said one of the most interesting things about Wolf is his creativity as well as his unselfish volunteerism. She said he is able to excel in all aspects of his life.
"He has inspired me to go back and try doing black and whites," Nastav said. "He proves that photography can be accomplished whether you take a picture in your backyard or in a foreign country."
Wolf said he has come along way since he first acquired that camera from his uncle Johnny. He said he does mainly studio work now, and most of his clients are outside the Kansas City, Kan., area. Everything is also completely digital now, he said.
"We are all 100 percent digital," Wolf said. "We are also one of the best kept secrets in Kansas City, Kan."
Wolf said the exhibit will be broken up into images of Strawberry Hill, Navy and travel and commercial work. He said the exhibit will reflect his diversity throughout the years.
"If I would've concentrated on one aspect of photography I would've gotten bored," Wolf said. "Everyday is different. You get to go places and meet all kinds of people. It was a good life and still is."