Notes on the Work of Michael Wolf 

Essay by Leo Hsu

Issue 123


I was saddened when I heard that Michael Wolf, “photographer of mega-cities,” had passed away unexpectedly in April, in Hong Kong, where he lived.  I admired Wolf for the imaginative breadth of his work, fully in the service of a rich set of related concerns: how people live in crowded urban spaces, the pressures that they face, and the paths that they find.  Wolf’s photographic projects were sometimes spectacular, frequently complicated, and always humanistic, spiraling in and out to ask and answer recurring questions in fresh and surprising ways.

Tokyo Compression #75, Tokyo,  2011

Tokyo Compression #75, Tokyo, 2011

Wolf may be known best for Architecture of Density (2003-2009) in which he filled his frames with the views of Hong Kong high rises and skyscrapers as incredible patterns of windows and levels. The images resonate with fantasies of efficiency and certainty promised by steel, glass and concrete. Evidence of people—hanging laundry, an open window—break the patterns and assert a human presence, albeit one that is dwarfed by the money and power that give cities their shape.

But in the context of the rest of Wolf’s work, Architecture of Density is only one of several entwined investigations that explore the limits of individual agency in the context of the power that cities embody. Transparent City (2007-2009) is in some ways similar to Architecture of Density but emphasizes the people inside Chicago office buildings, as well as the buildings in relation to one another and to the evening light. Tokyo Compression (2010-2011) is a series of photographs of tightly packed subway riders, their faces pressed against glass, the humidity visible; in beautiful palettes, their physical stress is both literal and metaphorical. In 100 x 100 (2006) Wolf made portraits of the residents of the small, approximately 100 square foot apartments that are typical of many Hong Kong housing developments.

It is, however, Wolf’s ongoing projects relating to Hong Kong at street level (1994-2019) that, to me, are his most intimate explorations of cities.  Wolf’s study of what he called “informal solutions” appeared to be ongoing and endless, part of his everyday engagement with the city’s vernacular life.  Walking through streets and back alleys, Wolf observed improvisational details: chairs set out as outdoor seating areas, work breaks taken where one can, laundry, brooms, umbrellas; stunted trees and potted plants, corner shrines… it goes on and on, and Wolf has taken note of all of it, recognizing the order that these arrangements represent.  In Hong Kong Assemblage Deconstructed (2015), Wolf photographed an alleyway wall—sort of an exterior workbench area, less the bench—with three umbrellas, several hangers, a pair of gloves, some tape and two pairs of scissors, and then photographed each of the 53 objects individually.  In these street level examinations, the people and their things are all components continuously in play with one another, perhaps influenced by the glass and steel above, but visibly handmade and at human scale, every site of friction unique.  

I was first led to Michael Wolf by his Google Street View projects (2008-2010), where Wolf mined Google’s map photography for images around which he could build meaning, using poor resolution and Street View artifacts as formal elements. Two groups of Street View pictures stand out: FY, a collection of captures of people flipping their middle finger at the Street View car, and A Series of Unfortunate Events, a collection of falls, fights, and fires, and also some beautifully ambiguous Street View “incidents.” Wolf’s images simultaneously critique surveillance and mediation and celebrate the history of street photography. A capture of a couple kissing in Paris suggests Robert Doisneau’s 1950 “The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville” but where Doisneau’s iconic romantic photograph appears to freeze the emotions evoked by an apparently fleeting moment with soft light and blurred motion, Wolf’s version is emotionally ambivalent, the performance of the kiss offset by the cold, static, unaffected gaze of a car-mounted camera array, the layers of digital intervention made visible. He makes a kind of anti-street photography that takes the idea of a “decisive moment” as the starting point for his examination of how the way that we see is mediated by history and technology.

I find Wolf’s work very satisfying to show in class because of the way that his projects bridge modernist photography, contemporary photography, and contemporary art. These often overlapping categories are slippery and not always useful, but Wolf’s work speaks to each: the sociocritical ambitions of contemporary art; the foregrounding of practical methods so important to contemporary photography; a movement through the world leading directly to formal statements that delight with the pleasure of looking that is central to 20th century modern photography.

The echo of Doisneau’s kiss is only one example of how Wolf’s work responds to the history of photography.  A line can be drawn directly from Many Are Called, Walker Evans’ 1930s hidden camera subway portraits, to Tokyo Compression, though the pressures faced by Tokyo commuters are more intense and physically demanding than the contemplative interstitial space between work and home that Evans described.  Similarly, Evans’ interest in the vernacular, in the jumble of signs and expressions that surround us in cities, and in the way that these phenomenon could be distilled into photographs, is resonant with Wolf’s street level Hong Kong work.  Wolf’s catalog of improvisations also recall Helen Levitt’s 1940s photographs of children’s chalk drawings in New York. Wolf’s typological approach follows on the industrial typologies of Bernd and Hilde Becher, elevating the utilitarian in order to recognize its structural significance in society.  And his spectacular use of color in large prints to compress and then expand what he sees on a high rise façade is in dialogue with Andreas Gursky, just as the Bechers and Gursky were themselves in dialogue with Evans.  The Street View projects reimagine street photography and what “public space” means when an archive of “everywhere” made by an all-seeing corporation is a real part of our lives, not virtual, and when this weird reality provides as much opportunity to recognize grace and apprehension as a walk through the center of any megacity.

But even as Michael Wolf’s work can be read for his response to past ideas and problems in photography that he inherited and re-imagined in new ways, the real power of his work is in his direct engagement with his own time.  His photographs speak to the dreams of global capitalism and the pressures that those dreams create, and the small daily pleasures and indignities that are squeezed out of the hyper-rational grids that contain us. What comfort is a street corner shrine to the local gods? It’s a claim, like street art or graffiti, or rubber gloves hung out to dry, a plant growing alongside pipes and ducts, or a line of mops hanging off of a wall, leveraged against their own weight.  It’s a claim like a kiss in a public square, a kiss for the camera, a performance that claims a little bit of Street View’s power for the couple themselves. In a terrain of contemporary art photography that is entirely comfortable with images as constructions but wary and careful of photographs in documentary modes, Wolf could do both: make the world as he saw it and see the world as it has been made. He seemed to have no orthodoxy, making photographs of buildings as flatness or endless objects at ground level or from the screen of his computer as he moved, I imagine with great delight, through the images of cities frozen in time.  I wish that I could see what he would have done next and that I could have met him one day, and I lament that someone who saw both pressure and relief so clearly is no longer with us.

Architecture of Density #101, Hong Kong,  2008

Architecture of Density #101, Hong Kong, 2008

Transparent City #88, Chicago,  2007

Transparent City #88, Chicago, 2007

Informal Seating Arrangements #16,  2014

Informal Seating Arrangements #16, 2014

Hong Kong Flora #7 , 2004

Hong Kong Flora #7, 2004

Paris Street View #28,  2009

Paris Street View #28, 2009


All images © Michael Wolf and courtesy Blue Lotus Gallery, Hong Kong

Leo Hsu is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.  Visit his website or contact Leo at leo@fractionmagazine.com