Klaus Lange’s Distinct Palette

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.

By Scott Hargis
Published: April, 2006

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,’ grab my camera, which is lying right on the windowsill there, step outside, ‘click, click, click,’ 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.

Photos (opposite page) top: March of the Squids; bottom: Leviathans; (this page) top left: Kandinsky Palette; top right: Lange behind the lens on his ship; below: Sternsweep. See more of Klaus Lange’s photography on his Web site: http://seaklaus.myexpose.com