Cary Wolfson, aka the Red Rooster, Uses Technology to Elevate Photography

"Pleasant Valley (Morning), Carroll County, MD 2009."
"Pleasant Valley (Morning), Carroll County, MD 2009."
Cary Wolfson

You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

Cary Wolfson is best known for his award-winning work as the producer and host of KBCO’s Blues from the Red Rooster Lounge. But the beloved radio personality’s eye for art is every bit as keen as his ear for music. His latest photography exhibition will open on Friday, January 22 at the KGNU-FM studios in Boulder, at 4700 Walnut Street.

Wolfson grew up in Baltimore, and says he remembers being “the kid who, as soon as he could reach as high as the countertop, was switching the radio from whatever his mother had on." The music lover moved to Denver in 1973, but wouldn’t snag a radio job for five years, when KGNU had an opening. Wolfson says he “got about five minutes of training,” and his first on-air gig was monitoring an NPR show called Jazz Alive. (When the first reel ended, he was the guy who’d open the mic and say, “You’re listening to KGNU Boulder.”

Wolfson eventually started a show called Blues Legacy. But then “the shakedown came,” he remembers; after a falling out with KGNU, Wolfson got back on the air by reinventing a character called the Red Rooster. That was the start of KBCO’s Blues from the Red Rooster Lounge, and the show, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m., has now enjoyed a 31-year run. 

In 1990, with no editorial experience whatsoever, Wolfson founded the quarterly Blues Access magazine, and published it for the next twelve years. “At that time, it was, like, the second blues magazine in the country,” he says. That gig got Wolfson into concerts and festivals, where he’d take pictures. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” the Red Rooster admits. But he made it work nonetheless. 

A few years after his magazine folded, Wolfson and his wife went to Italy, and the radio host found himself behind the camera once again. “I’d just gotten this Canon digital camera, the kind you carry with a strap around the wrist,” he says, laughing.

"Allen Toussaint, JazzFest, New Orleans, LA 2010."
"Allen Toussaint, JazzFest, New Orleans, LA 2010."
Cary Wolfson
"Red Egg Galaxy, NYC 2015."
"Red Egg Galaxy, NYC 2015."
Cary Wolfson
"Highline Window Washers, NYC 2015."
"Highline Window Washers, NYC 2015."
Cary Wolfson

Wolfson took quite a few pictures on that trip and later showed them to a friend/photographer, who told Wolfson to join the Flatirons Photo Club, and take his natural talent to the next level. Through the club – “A rare group of nice, supportive people,” Wolfson observes – the budding photographer says he “learned how to take a good picture, and, on the other end, how to create a good picture.”

Around that time, Wolfson “fell in love with [Adobe Photoshop] Lightroom,” he says. “The fact that I could actually work with the pictures and make them better — I liked that just as much, if not more,  than going out and taking the pictures.”

“Nobody ever sees anything I take right off the bat,” continues Wolfson. He uses Lightroom and an iPad Mini2 to “really be creative,” he says. And that intersection of photography and technology is where Wolfson has found his niche in the fine art world.

“This sounds really crazy,” Wolfson admits. “In the last year, I sold my record collection – that’s about 2,500 records – to buy a really nice, mirrorless, full-frame camera.” That’s the camera Wolfson uses when he’s highly focused on detail; even so, Wolfson always carries the iPad Mini2.

Except, of course, when he doesn’t.

Last summer, while teaching a summer workshop in Maryland, Wolfson went on a bike ride through vast, rolling farm country, where he “came over this hill, and saw this scene where the early morning light was fantastic,” he says.

Wolfson didn’t have a camera on him; when he returned the next morning, the light just wasn’t the same. “I took the shots anyway,” Wolfson says, “then spent hours manipulating them until I achieved something that reminded me of what I’d seen the first time.”

The final piece – "Pleasant Valley (Morning)” – views more like a watercolor than a photograph. “Technology – when it isn’t driving me crazy – is a fantastic tool for finding an inner-reality that, for me, transcends the literal,” Wolfson explains.

Wolfson says “Bronze Gods of Cycling” is another great example of how his process unfolds.

The impetus for Wolfson's "Bronze Gods of Cycling."
The impetus for Wolfson's "Bronze Gods of Cycling."
Cary Wolfson
"Bronze Gods of Cycling, Loveland, CO and Sedona, AZ 2009."
"Bronze Gods of Cycling, Loveland, CO and Sedona, AZ 2009."
Cary Wolfson

A sculpture at the 2009 Loveland Sculpture Show caught the bike enthusiast's eye, and he took a snapshot of it. “Because the background was so cluttered, I never thought I’d actually use it for anything,” Wolfson says. “I liked it so much, though, that I started playing around with it to extract the cyclists from the background.”

After many hours, Wolfson got an extraction he liked. “Then I started playing around with possible backgrounds, finally settling on this great one taken at sunset in Sedona,” he explains. “Like so much art, I think it was a result of one part good eye, one part technique and three parts lucky accident — especially that those mountains frame the riders so well.”

From bikes to faces to urban landscapes, Wolfson’s artistic interests are broad — and often inspired by his adventures. “Traveling just gets me going,” he says.  “When I go places, it triggers me beyond just so-called travel photography. I’m an instinctive person, and I feel the juice.” That happens with music and art alike, he says, and Wolfson isn't afraid to roll with it. 

Wolfson’s photography has received awards from the Flatirons Photo Club and the Louisville Art Association, where one piece – “Teller Moon” – placed first at the 2011 Louisville Art Association National Juried Photography Show. His images have been hung at Boulder Digital Arts Studio; the KCP Gallery at 364 Main Street in Longmont; the Dairy Center for the Arts and the Dona Laurita Gallery.

Self-portrait.EXPAND
Self-portrait.
Betsy Calvert

Wolfson’s upcoming show at KGNU runs through February, and is open during the station’s business hours. For more information on Wolfson and his work, visit his Facebook page. You can also listen to the Red Rooster syndicates online. 

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