From High-Rises to the Street: A Look Back at Michael Wolf’s Photographs
Writer Blues Wong pays tribute to photographer Michael Wolf, who passed away earlier in 2019, and his depictions of Hong Kong and other places in Asia
A handful of world-class photographers have propelled Hong Kong to international fame. There are the ‘good old days’ colonial photographs taken by John Thomson (1837–1921) in the 1860s–1870s, and by Fan Ho (1931–2016) in the 1950s–1960s. There is Greg Girard (born 1955–), who featured the underground world of Kowloon Walled City in the 1980s–1990s and turned it into an unorthodox icon of Hong Kong. Joining this exemplary line-up, the late German photographer Michael Wolf (1954–2019) was a contemporary artist focused on Asia, with an emphasis on China and Hong Kong. Through his lens, he revealed our embedded Hong Kong cultural identity after the return of sovereignty to mainland China in 1997.
Born in Munich and educated in the United States and Germany, Wolf was once a long-term contract photographer for Stern magazine, crowned twice in the World Press Photo Award (2005, 2010). He moved to Hong Kong in 1994 and commenced his personal projects, publishing a voluminous thirty-two monographs before passing earlier this year. He had two distinctive thematic directions: the architectural level and the street level. One can appreciate his works through these two lenses: the macro and the micro.
The Architectural Level
Visually, Wolf’s architectural photographs can easily be associated with the German Düsseldorf School of Photography and its North American stream, the New Topographics. These artists advocate a detached or alienating approach to photographing man-made or man-altered environments. Both groups have a stringent preference for the sharpness, details, and textures provided by large-format cameras. The photographs are presented in large-scale series with unified compositions and lighting aesthetics.
Wolf’s Architecture of Density (2003–2009) is one such series. It is a flattened portrayal of Hong Kong’s high-rise buildings and framed facades. The hyper-dense city blocks with sky-high property prices (around HK$6,700 per square foot at the time) are the paradoxical result of rapid economic growth in mega global cities. Through tight composition, Wolf transformed the three-dimensional urban clusters into repetitive two-dimensional patterns with a flat perspective. The result evokes anonymous urban faces trapped within claustrophobic cement mazes. Architecture of Density mirrors the deadpan aesthetics—that is, photographs devoid of emotion—of the New Topographics school. It earned Wolf international recognition while addressing the major housing problems in Hong Kong.
The Street Level
In addition to these large-scale architectural photographs, Wolf also engaged in a practice called ‘social documentary’. In contrast to breaking news and ordinary photojournalism, this practice is not confined by time or editorial text. Taken through lengthy explorations that can last for weeks, months, or even years, social documentary photographers address specific social issues and absurdities with series of expressive images. These images go beyond the function of traditional documentary photography to simply record, and usually reveal the artist’s personal feelings and interpretations.
Tokyo Compression (2010) is one of Wolf’s most successful social documentary series. Over the course of four years, he spent sixteen weeks—Monday to Friday, 7:30 to 9:30am—in Tokyo’s Shimo-kitazawa station to document the conditions of the commuters’ daily journeys between home and work. The Tokyo subway system has a massive 3.64 million people using it daily, and trains stop at this station in eighty-second intervals during morning rush hour. Wolf confronted his tortured subjects in crowded trains through the glass windows. Passengers are obscured by occasional raindrops or exhaled human breaths.
His tactic was to expose the commuters’ inner turmoil through close-up portraits of their dramatic facial and body expressions within the compressed space. Tokyo Compression #39, for example, depicts a suited woman with her eyes closed pressing herself against the subway window. Her frowning eyebrows echo the curved open palm in the forefront, the feeble fingers seeming to wave a silent cry for help. Although visually reminiscent, this striking pose of pain provides a great contrast to the serene Buddhist mudras found in Buddhist temples. Tokyo Compression presents a real-life version of canned sardines, and the entire series signifies the vanishing presence of the anonymous working class in Japan.
Wolf continued his mission from Japan’s subways to the streets of China. He depicted Shenzhen’s Dafen Oil Painting Village, where 1,200 galleries and more than 8,000 painters created the world’s largest art forgery industry. The painters are usually art students or migrant workers from other regions and are attracted by the commercial opportunities in this special economic zone of communist China. Creating replicas of famous Western paintings like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Picasso’s The Dream, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is a lucrative business, and the annual export from this small community amounts to upwards of seventy percent of global production of copied art.
Wolf’s Real Fake Art , Diptych Andy Warhol (2011) consists of two photographs: the framed reproduction and the anonymous art forger holding the oil painting around their studio. This arrangement is like a movie jump cut and invites viewers to connect the two juxtaposed images. In the above example, we may notice the comical contrast between the artwork, in mint condition, and the art forger standing on a concrete floor in front of a shabby tiled wall. Wolf had understood the illogical disparity between this frenzied environment and Andy Warhol’s 1962 Do It Yourself (Landscape) Pop Art print. This experience in Shenzhen reflects his adoption of a wittier tone.
In contrast with the lonely atmosphere in Architecture of Density, Wolf took a more humorous approach when photographing city back alleys. Sitting in China (2002) and Hong Kong Front Door / Back Door (2005) feature dynamic micro visions of our urban backstreets, devoid of human presence. Wolf focused on mundane objects and observed how they are used, reused, arranged, abused, or transformed in daily practices. The original forms and functions of objects are abandoned, and they are instead turned into seemingly accidental three-dimensional sculptures or installations. In the above example, the wrapped back seat of a bicycle becomes an involuntary contemporary monument. Like the Surrealist photographers of the twentieth century, Wolf challenges our arrogant rationality. He challenges the division between perception and representation by turning selected objects into abstracted forms.
In Hong Kong Umbrella (2015), a collaborative project with photographer Lam Yik Fei, Wolf continued his anthropological visual study of Hong Kong’s rich vernacular culture with a thematic concentration on umbrellas, which not only serve as a shelter from the elements, but also a significant political symbol after the Umbrella Movement in 2014. In the above example, Hong Kong Informal Solution #7, we notice the informal setting of numerous stacked objects. The umbrella, placed at the top, sheds shimmery radiance on a chaotic space. This silver lining behind a cloud reminds us not to give up hope for the future. Perhaps this is something we can learn from the legacy Wolf left behind.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories. A previous version of this article referred to the photographer ‘Fan Ho’ as ‘Ho Fan’. This has been changed at the request of the artist’s estate.
Blues Wong is a photography critic and independent curator. His writing was selected for Daido Moriyama’s Reflection and Refraction exhibition catalogue. He is a contributor for the Hong Kong section of Martin Parr and WassinkLundgren’s The Chinese Photobook: From the 1900s to the Present (Aperture, 2015). Wong is the museum expert advisor (Hong Kong photography) for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.