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Kurt Wentzel  

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NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
23 Sep 1999

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Radio Expeditions/Geographic Century
Kurt Wentzel Interview
9/23/1999

KW = Kurt Wentzel
DS = Don Smith

KW -I'm Volkmar Kurt Wentzel¿. I was born in Germany in the kingdom of Saxony in 1915 ...
DS -your father was a photochemist?
1:16 KW -he studied photochemistry in Berlin under Prof. Fogle (?) ....he knew how to make emulsions for photographic papers and photographic films and I remember with my father, he and I built a pinhole camera and then I saw him mix a small batch of photographic emulsion and coat it on a glass plate ....then we went to a nearby park ....and we took a picture of one of the many classical figures in the park, it happened to be Medusa ... .I grew up, as a matter of fact no one could have started earlier than I did at least my fascination for photography. My father, who could be strict ....would lock me up if I did something bad, he would lock me up in his darkroom for 10-15 minutes .... well it was traumatic but I found the switch to the red inspection light and that of course opened up a whole new world for me ....
3:46 DS -when did you come to the U.S.
KW -... 1926 ....his father was offered a job at the oldest photo company ...
DS -did you ever consider yourself an explorer?
4:25 KW -Well, I don't know whether I consider myself an explorer, but my mother was really a fascinating person ...she read Grimm's Fairy tales as well as Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer who crossed the Gobi desert ....5:33 ... they inspired me, I dare say subconsciously. Also I should say my father, when he was a young man ...his favorite place was the Balkans and he took a number of trips to the Balkans and took excellent photographs with a camera ...
DS -you've done several things in Africa?
6:17 KW -well you could say that. I had some wonderful assignments that happened to be timely bc I got to see Africa before the ending of the colonial period. Two countries come especially to mind, Angola and Mozambique ....
7:52 -tell me a little bit about what it was like in the field for a photographer.
8:08 -KW -We had to carry lots of equipment. I might tell you a little bit about my India assignment... .1 was called down to Mr. Fisher and he said we'd like to have you do India, get going as soon as you can and stay out of politics ... .I went by freighter to India which took a month ... 14 cases bc I still did some processing in the field, which for echtochrome meant 11 different baths ... chemicals, all that I took along, plus (1946) was still the time when NGS wanted color and b&w .. .1 had to have large format and then the smaller format ... .I never forget I photographed the Aganta (?) caves that were discovered by Buddhist monks ...1'11 never forget, I was in one of these caves and I arranged all these trays in front of a Buddhist offering .. .1 had to send for ice 75 miles away to cool my solutions to 65 degrees ... so I stayed alone, bats flying around my ears, it was scary, but ... .it was two days of processing and afterward the emulsion just dripped off bc the ice wasn't enough so I had to send again for twice as much ice and had to do it again ....

13 :00 DS -it's difficult to process bc your hands are kind of trapped.
13 :08 KW -oh yes, that's also tricky bc lots of times I had to hold my holders in a changing bag, so my hands are trapped and just then a mosquito lands in your ear and there's nothing you could do ... (laughs) ...

DS -you just had to have a broad back to carry all this stuff.
13:38 KW -well, I didn't have a broad back, I've never been a great physical specimen .. .I've had 6 hernias .. .I wonder how the devil I did carry it around.
DS -now all of this changed when 35 mm photography came into vogue.
14:07 KW -well it did, and the pioneer was Luis Marden. And I'll never forget, I had just started at the geographic in 1937 and that Spring, Luis and I kind of hit it off right away ... and so we went for a walk down by the white house, and we were going up 15th street ... 16:01 ...we were walking up 15th street ... was a photographic store and we were walking by and there was a projector going, projecting on a loop on a 16 mm film and Luis said, my god that color is wonderful. So we went inside and we asked the manager to stop it and he was absolutely fascinated by the purity of the color. And that of course was Kodachrome ....Luis managed to get 2 roles of 35 mm when it first came out and took pictures of his wife and an airplane ... then he created a special slide projector so that he could show them to the society ....and they all came in and he showed them the clarity....well he compared it and then afterwards, practically no one said anything they just said thank you Mr. Marden, bc they didn't know the theory of color ... then the chief of our photo lab and Gil Grosvenor, they saw to it that some of these were sent to Philadelphia where are separations were made ... that fall they wrote back and said I believe the Kodachrome will make the magazine look better, so it was in. But there was a 10 year period there was still a period where we had to use both ....

19:47 DS -more on Luis.
19:59 KW -when I started in Jan. '37, I just heard about him, he was on assignment in Mexico and he was following the route of Cortez and that to me inspired my imagination ... then I met him and then of course came all his wonderful things he did. In another one, he did diving in Mexico where they had sacrificial human offers, mostly women by the way, so Luis had to promote this thing. So what he did, he went down, he got a number of artifacts, and then when Grosvenor came down to inspect this thing to see if we should put money into the project, Luis had carefully on a shelf underwater, deposited these artifacts that he found and so when Melville came, there would certainly be something coming up ... so Luis dove down and there he comes up holding this artifact, whatever it was ...

DS -Polynesia discover.
21:58 KW -oh yes, the bones of the Bounty ... he did the research and then he followed it up and found where the Bounty might have been burned and true enough he found the bones of the bounty. That is true discovery and exploration in the truest sense of the word ... .1 remember he brought back some copper nails that were made into cuff links and that kind of thing...he also made some wonderful motion pictures ....
24:20 DS -how would you sum up his contribution.
24:30 KW -outstanding ... he was one of the first to see the advantages of the aqua lung....he worked with Cousteau, but I don't think Cousteau gave Marden the credit he deserves....the first underwater photo was taken by geographic staff ... this is what they had to do, they built a raft with a reflector over it and built up a big charge of flash powder. .. the diver went down with a camera, looked down into the camera and opened his shutter, wait until some fish happened to come by and then signaled to the top to set off the flash ....they took these first underwater pictures offish....early 30s, late 20s.
26:59 DS -you first met him in the 30s.
27: 12 KW -I met him shortly after I came to the Geographic ....he still had some hair, he was full of fun. We did a lot of tricks, I'll never forget, we had one darkroom man who was v. Germanic in the sense that he was always on time but he also always left on time. And then we noticed that 10 minutes before 5 p.m. he would come out of the dark room, look at the clock and then the next time he emerged he would have his coat on and be ready to leave. So Luis had this idea to set the clocks back ... he frustrated Frank's sense of timeliness....another thing he did, was when Frank was out to lunch we put flash lights in all of his inspection lights ...so we had a lot offun.29:09 ... he was a virile guy, Italian looking, good looking fellow.
29:25 DS -Luis' legacy.
29:38 KW -he should be remembered for the book that he did before the geographic about color photography with a miniature camera ....
30:31 DS -what has photography done for exploration?

31 :30 KW -I think it's done good and bad. The good is that we know more about the world and understand other cultures better, and doing this visually, the geographic should get credit for this ... so we do know more about the world ...

DS -before photography, explorers would bring artists, but now you could actually see them.
32:49 KW -you're right ....but they could not compare in accuracy to a good photograph ...
DS -I remember Luis talking about Tahiti and Fiji before tourism.
34:52 KW -I can tell you, lots of times, you could call it a guilty conscience. I was on a Nepal expedition with Dillan Ripley, we were the first westerners to have ever been there. And now I think of Nepal being a center for hippies and drugs, and they were wonderful people .. .I feel that we were avant-garde to ruining some places ... .it was really still a new and wonderful world ....
36:32 DS -when writers were photographers.
KW -Maynard Owen Williams was the first writer and photographer ....
37:36 DS -but as you say, photography has been a mixed blessing.
37:40 KW -it's been a mixed blessing sure, but it's been an overall blessing if we just use it right. You have to understand other cultures and show both sides. I've always tried to do that, for example in India, on one hand you had the maharajas living in splendor and so on, and on the other hand, on the outside of the city you had the houses of the other cast who weren't part of society, but they were nice people ....so you have to understand ... .1'11 never forget I met his highness Maharaja of Jaipor, I called him Jai, we got to be good friends, and he said come with me Kurt we have to go see the elephants being painted ... 1 thought he was one of them but then we went outside and he became a true Indian, his people loved him, so there are many sides ....[he also tells the story about bringing records out for everyone to listen to] ...
DS -are you still shooting?
40:35 KW -no I'm not. I have an Olympus for grandchildren shots.
DS -the new technology is amazing.
KW -it's amazing....the new age is digital printing ... [talks about his job as a portrait photographer but how he wanted to be a news photographer] ... there's a shift from reporting photography to art and symbolism within the photos ... .

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