The Ken Wolfgang Collection: Films in Time

Ken Wolfgang

Ken Wolfgang was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1931. At the age of twelve he taught himself photography which led to his interest in crafting motion pictures. In 1951 at the age of 20, he enlisted in the military which deployed him to Japan. It was here, while walking the streets of Japan, that he had a revelation that the Japanese people were just like him and the people that he loved at home in Ohio. He decided to shun preconceived notions he held of Japanese culture which were prevalent among post World War II Americans. Wolfgang made it his purpose in life to use his gift of filmmaking to create documentary films that depicted cultures accurately, without reinforcing the negative stereotypes that were pervasive in American culture at the time. He stated that instead of using his camera as a sideline spectator, he tried to film from the cultural perspective of the people being filmed so the viewer could look out and see the world of others through the eyes of those who lived in that world.

Ken Wolfgang formed his own production company named Kensharo Productions in 1958, and in 1964 he and his family moved to Sonoíta, Arizona. He made filmmaking his full time career. The full length travelogue films Ken Wolfgang created between the 1950's-1980's document a wide array of cultures from nations including Mexico, Thailand, Japan, India, Singapore and Austria. The goal of his films was to document unfamiliar details of a culture. He sought to avoid traditional tourist highlights and instead, to offer insightful perspectives into the lives of the film's subjects. To achieve this, he gained unprecedented access into the daily lives of people from cultures that had previously shunned foreigners. He immersed himself in their lives and engaging in their daily activities such as farming, cooking, and construction. He often spent months with them without a camera to gain their friendship and trust. He aimed to make films that were authentic and that would document the real life events of his subjects as they actually occurred. His films succeed in capturing the point of view of the subjects rather that his own. In his films, Wolfgang refused to stage shots and employed a straightforward, personal approach towards documenting his subjects while using minimal artificial lighting. Wolfgang presented his films throughout the country on the United States travel film lecture circuit where he narrated his films to large audiences as the film was projected in the auditoriums.

Some of Wolfgang's films like Soul of Japan were picked up by major distributors like Walt Disney and National Geographic. This increased his exposure to wider audiences and gained notoriety for his films. In 1970, Wolfgang was awarded the Cine Film Festival Golden Eagle Award, considered to be the highest award given for a non-theatrical film produced in the United States, for his film The Japanese Sword as Soul of the Samurai. In 1983, Wolfgang retired from filmmaking, citing that the popularity of travel shows on cable and technology of filmmaking had begun to trump the human connection to the work. Ken Wolfgang died on September 23, 2011 at the age of 80.

The Ken Wolfgang and Kendra Gaines collection includes correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, and reel to reel film and audio, as well as digital versions of his complete films. A book library accompanied the collection and books added were cataloged individually. The Ken Wolfgang Collection: Films in Time digital exhibit showcases a few samples of his films along with samplings of correspondence, press releases and other documents related to the films.