You Can't Fool Mother Nature: A Talk with Photographer George Katzenberger

Courtesy George Katzenberger
Protected Species

As Billie Holiday sang the blues over the Starbucks speakers, I paged through a box of George Katzenberger's serene landscape photos as he sat next to me, sharing anecdotes about the individual pictures.

Shot in Infrared (IR), the photos are hallucinatory, serene postcards, until you suddenly notice hidden (in plain sight) a dark black, even menacing, cell phone tower made to look like a pine tree, or a fur tree or a palm tree or a ….
White-haired, casually dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, Katzenberger likes to talk and likes to laugh. He doesn't take himself seriously, but you should.

Dave Barton/OC Weekly: Talk a little about your background and how you got started.
George Katzenberger: I am an advertising photographer specialized in table-top and corporate reports and have owned the Katzenberger Photography studio in Santa Ana since 1986.  I also teach photography workshops and classes at the City of Mission Viejo and the Irvine Fine Arts Center.  My true love, however, is in art, editorial and documentary photography.

As for how things got started, while I was a Biology major at Orange Coast College, I found an SLR camera and decided take a beginner class to learn how to use it.On the day of registration, I was sick and [asked a friend to register me in the class.] My friend accidentally signed me up for the “Intro Professional” class with Arthur Taussig.Two weeks later, I realized the mistake but was already hooked.By graduation, (with a Bio minor) I had taken every photography class OCC had. To this day, Arthur is a friend, mentor and an inspiration.


What inspired the cell phone tower series?
The project started as I was testing a roll of infrared film for Image Control, the famous local photo lab in 2003.  I knew that the real trees would be white with IR film, but I thought “how would this fake palm tree/cell phone tower be recorded?” As I looked at the black and white proof sheet, it was instantly obvious that the fake trees were always going to be black with IR film.

I realized that I could create a photo documentary with a hook–that I could reveal and expose these “Impostors” (as I decided to name the project). If a shot of a forest has a fake in it, that fake will stand out as a black sheep in a herd of white sheep.In fact, it is this metaphor angle that inspired the entire documentary.

Why black and white and not color?
To me, color shots of the “trees” are boring, but I do use color in diptychs–with the same shot in IR– to show how well the fake is hidden.

The public is fooled by the camouflage. While composing an image,< people came up and asked what I was shooting. "That fake tree", I would say. "Oh... I never noticed!" would usually be the answer. We all live and work with hundreds of these dark pretenders all around us and usually never see them.
I am also beginning to shoot artificial turf and lawns to expand my definition of “impostors”.

As a result of your photos, you're now a bit of an expert about cell phone trees. Any info to share with readers?
Sure. The RF radiation from cell towers isn't as dangerous as some people think. That doesn't mean you should build a tree house in one, but what they do emit is aimed out, not down. I also would not recommend holding your cell phone to your head 24-7. A phone's RF radiation level is about the same as a 5-mile walkie-talkie.
Can you share the names of five artists that inspire you and why? 

Arthur Taussig: A local photographer, he's particularly skilled at using his compositions to further the story telling.
W. Eugene Smith Few photographers were as talented at using compositions and light.  Very powerful stuff.
Frank Zappa and Beck: I love the way they are willing to use anything, any noise to be a part of the music.
Joni Mitchell: I love her ability to use lyrics to paint a scene during her music.

What's your next project?
I'm hoping to develop “Impostors” into a book.
I also have a project where I try to shoot military aircraft to look like cartoons–or at least as non-glamorous as I can. I don't have anything against the military.  It is just an art project – an exercise in perspective.  

As we wrapped our conversation and walked toward the exit, Katzenberger pointed a finger at a tall metal and cement tower in the middle of the strip mall's crowded parking lot. No way, I thought, having been to the coffee shop a dozen times and not giving it a second thought.
Stepping into the sunshine, we walked up to the pole, Katzenberger noting that the model number of the tower wasn't posted on it, as they usually are.
“Maybe they've retired it or just don't want people to know it's a phone tower,” he said. 

“I never even looked up at it,” I replied. “I just assumed it was the parking lot lights.”

“This means the station is in one of these buildings nearby.” Pointing down at the asphalt, he pointed out that a long, diagonal section was darker than the rest–indicating buried cables–and that they led right to the front of a nondescript pool supply office.

“It's probably in back,” said Katzenberger, as we walked around to the parking lot at the back of the building.
It was gated, but I could see the back door as he listed the giveaways–GPS antenna, radiation warning on the back door, keyed entrance, grounding strap–all essentially hidden from view.
Mental note to self: Look up more often.

If the most accurate definition of an artist is that makes you look at the world with new (or newly informed) eyes, then George Katzenberger pretty much nailed that one.

If you'd like to contact Katzenberger about his work, you can send him an email at im*******@ka*********.com  

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