Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Photographer: Michael Wolf

I first came across Michael Wolf in a compendium of photographers work published alongside the 3rd Prix Pictet in 2010.
Prix Pictet Growth
The competition requested work looking at the theme of growth, predominantly being answered in the context of global development and its impact upon the planet and it's inhabitants.  Among the photographers nominated or shortlisted for the prize and thus included in the book, was the winner Mitch Epstein with his series "American Power", investigating the addiction of Americans to power and the hold it has over them.  Thomas Struth also featured with his Paradise series, as did Chris Jordan with his shocking series of images of decaying corpses of albatross chicks, their bodies full of plastic debris mistakenly fed to them.  However, the stand out for me, visually at least, if not politically, was a series of photographs by Michael Wolf of high density housing in Hong Kong.  I immediately ordered the volume from which this entry was taken
This was a definite case of not being quite sure what I had ordered, when it arrived there were 2 volumes, not 1, in a semi-transparent slip case, a fabulous package and now a very treasured possession.  The two volumes were labeled "Hong Kong Outside" and "Hong Kong Inside".  The former was a series of photographs of the external walls of vast high-rise housing developments, investigating the colour and form of these frankly terrifying places to live.  None of the photographs show either the sky or the ground, the buildings seem limitless.  The sense of infinity is further enhanced by the repetition of 102 images.  Although very similar, each is also quite different, the detail pulls the eye across the frame, looking into windows or at cloths hanging on frames.  The power here comes from the control of the frame and the use of repeating, but occasionally broken symmetry.

However, the first volume is the easy part, the second volume is a portrayal of comfort and horror, often contained in the same frame.  From outside he turned inward; 100 photographs of individual apartments, each no more than 120 square feet in size.  Every photo is taken from a very similar angle (no window or door is visible) and each reveals the inhabitant sitting within their tiny space.  Opposite each page is a brief description of age, profession, and why they like to live there.  At first it is quite shocking to see people in such small spaces, crowded with their possessions and furniture.  However, as I stepped through the book, I started to look at the details, photos on walls, small decorations, food they have just bought.  My gaze was pulled into each photograph and each demanded to be read, to delve into these peoples lives.  After a time, realization dawns that for most of these people this is not hell, it a comfortable place to live, surrounded by friends and their prized possessions.  

Except, that is for the rooms that are nearly empty.  Normally occupied by a single man, some of the rooms have little more than a bed, a chair, and perhaps a TV set. Here the comparison is immediately with a prison cell and questions arise as to why someone would choose such a spartan existence.  How do they fill their lives, why do they have nothing, why,...

These two books ask powerful questions about urban life, how many people can we sustain this way, how can we tolerate such living conditions.  However, in a world with continued population growth, this might be a vision of the future, not some kind of quasi-medieval past. Seen through European eyes, in which a house with 10 times this space is still considered small, these images are shocking; seen from an Asian perspective, I suspect not so much.

Photographically the strength of this work comes from repetition of form, illustrating difference by constant framing, enabling the eye to seek out the story without the distraction of first having to decipher the geometry of the photograph.  Although Michael Wolf is German, he studied in the US and works in Asia.  He is not a graduate of Duesseldorf, but, once again I see the influence of the Bechers and their typographies coming to the fore in this work.

Overall I find his work deeply fascinating and an excellent example of urban landscape photography, it strikes a chord somewhere deep in my psyche, perhaps my desire for order and symmetry finds a friend in his work.  Whilst I do not see myself stepping down the route of typographies, I do find inspiration in the control of the frame and the density of his images.  As I continue towards Assignment 2, I will keep this work in mind.

All of these photographs can be found on his web site: Michael Wolf

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