Urban life

Meet the man who takes those viral city photos

Michael Wolf describes the work and the concepts that go into creating his best known photos. By JAMES DURSTON

Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably seen his photographs.

From steamed-up train windows framing cadaver-like commuters in Tokyo, to monolithic apartment blocks repeating floor upon floor in Hong Kong, Michael Wolf has captured the insides of the world’s busiest, densest cities more impactfully than anyone else to date.

‘Hong Kong gave me my career,’ the 63-year-old tells me from his studio in an unremarkable factory building in Chai Wan, Hong Kong – an apt location for an artist whose work critiques our industrialised urban lives.

Tokyo Compression Michael Wolf
From Tokyo Compression, copyright Michael Wolf
Tokyo Compression Michael Wolf
Tokyo Compression Michael Wolf

‘It’s a megacity but it’s very compact and vertical, and therefore easy to navigate – an ideal place to start as an artist.’

Wolf was a photojournalist in the days when budgets were generous, in terms of both finances and time, and turned artist when the economics of his trade turned downward. ‘From having unlimited resources and spending three months on a story, after 11 September 2001 and the dotcom bubble it all changed. My editor would say we’ll give you maximum 10 days, then it shrank to seven days, and the work became less interesting for me. So in 2003 I started to pursue my own projects, and I haven’t done any commissions since then.’

His artistic work includes 32 books and photographic projects that all come together under the topic ‘Life in Cities’, and they’re being presented from 3 July- 27 August in a retrospective of his career in Arles, southern France.

You’ll see everything from his 1976 university thesis, for which he spent a year documenting a coal-mining community in the Ruhr, Germany; through to his best-known artistic works such as Tokyo Compression and Architecture of Density; to his latest project, Informal Solutions, which documents the ways Hongkongers recycle, reuse and adapt everyday products.

Informal Solutions Michael Wolf
From Informal Solutions, copyright Michael Wolf

‘Informal Solutions is shot primarily in back alleys. I think I know 95 per cent of Hong Kong’s back alleys now. I’ll jump onto a bus and walk six hours in a day to find an interesting area.’

Recycling was the basis of his first project as an artist, Bastard Chairs, a series of photos from China of broken chairs that had been put back together in inventive ways. Some of these will be presented in the retrospective as exhibits. ‘I actually collect these chairs – I’d buy them from the owner or trade them for a new chair – and at first it was just a gut thing, I found them beautiful. But later I realised they showed a transition point of China at the time: that the people are resourceful, thrifty and had time to sit, because the state-owned enterprises were going bankrupt and there was a lot of unemployment. So the chairs became a mataphor for China in the 1990s.’

Bastard Chairs Michael Wolf
From Bastard Chairs, copyright Michael Wolf

This socially critical eye has also informed his techniques, and not always to everyone’s approval.

Wolf’s project A Series of Unfortunate Events, in which he photographed scenes from Google Street View on his monitor, inspired some to accuse him of laziness. ‘It’s a misconception,’ he says. ‘I spent six months, five or six hours a day sitting in a dark room in Paris, going through the streets of Paris on my monitor, and it’s hard work. I decide what to photograph, I crop and make my composition, so it’s hairbrained to say it’s not photography.’

That project won him an honourable mention at the World Press Photo Awards in 2011.

Google Street View Michael Wolf
From A Series Of Unfortunate Events, copyright Michael Wolf
Google Street View Michael Wolf

But Wolf isn’t impervious to all criticism. He abandoned one project in Hong Kong after a newspaper questioned whether he was breaking privacy laws. ‘I’m acutley aware that there’s a sense of invasion when you photograph people. Especially in Hong Kong where people have no privacy, there’s an the unspoken rule. Some apartments are so close you could constantly look out into someone’s home, but, as in Japan, where the walls are so thin you choose not to hear, it’s the same in Hong Kong.’

See Michael Wolf’s retrospective at the Rencontres d’Arles, 34 rue du docteur Fanton, Arles, France; 3 July-27 August; 10am-7:30pm; €10 entry

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