BBC Culture

Photographer Michael Wolf: How to live in a megacity

  • Boxed in

    There is a lack of escape in Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density series, currently on show at the Flowers Gallery in London. Featuring the tower blocks that have taken over the Hong Kong skyline in recent decades, the photographs are cropped so tightly they become disorientating. “As a photojournalist I was always aware of composition in my photographs, and one of the things I always liked doing was not letting the viewer be able to escape from the picture,” says Wolf. “So as soon as you have sky there, you look up and you can leave the picture in some form. It’s the same with the architecture – if you have the sky and the horizon, you know approximately how big it is, and there’s no real illusion there. By cropping it like that, I’m not describing the building any more, I’m creating a metaphor.”

  • Commuter crush

    Wolf’s Tokyo Compression project also allows no means of escape. Commuters are shown crammed into the subway: faces crushed against the train window, their expressions range from melancholic to anguished. “Because the train is full, they can’t leave – all they can do is close their eyes or put their hand in front of their face, or get behind the post of the door,” says Wolf. “Those are questions I’m often asked – did you get permission; what do you think people think of this? I think the statement that I’m making is greater than the individual’s privacy in this case – it’s a public space that I’m photographing, and I’m not making fun of the people.”

  • Sympathetic voyeurism

    The German-born photographer, who won a first prize in Daily Life in the 2009 World Press Photo competition for Tokyo Compression, is seeking to express something about city life in his work – rather than exploit his subjects. “I try to put myself in their situation – I would look at the whole project and if the project was meaningful it wouldn’t bother me,” he says. “I know of projects in Japan that other photographers have done, where they take pictures of salarymen at midnight taking the last train home, totally drunk out of their minds, lying unconscious on the train platform, and I think that’s terribly unfair. It doesn’t say anything, and it’s a form of voyeurism that I would be against. I wouldn’t do that.”

  • In the fold

    Wolf moved to Hong Kong in 1994, working as a photojournalist for Stern magazine for eight years. He started on the Architecture of Density in 2003, just as his wife and son left the city due to the Sars outbreak. “For the first three weeks, I photographed the buildings in total, as a whole,” he says. “I would come home every evening and then I would scan the negatives and print them out – and since my wife and son were gone I had the whole house to myself. I’d put out these 11x14in prints on the floor and look at them and move them around, and at some point I just took one of the architecture pictures and folded it – folded away the sides, and folded away the top and bottom so I just had this pattern-like image.”

  • Scaling down

    The Architecture of Density is not just a series of abstract images: within the pattern, tiny details can be seen, hanging laundry or silhouettes behind blinds disrupting the geometry. Wolf captures private lives spilling over into public space. In his book accompanying the project, he says that he lives in an apartment building like those he has shot for his project. “My building, which is 22 stories high, is set in the middle of what seems to be a forest of high rises. When it gets dark and the lights go on in the tens of thousands of apartments that surround me, I often sit at my window and look into the rooms of my neighbours. Intimate and anonymous at the same time.”

  • Rear window

    For his Hong Kong series, Wolf gained access to buildings opposite for a direct vantage point; with a 2006 project, Transparent City, he applied his “no-exit photography” to Chicago with another sniper-style approach. Standing on rooftops with a long lens at dusk, he photographed the buildings – and the people inside them. “I was fascinated by looking into these condos and offices – and I thought that would be an interesting continuation of my architecture, but instead of being just about the surface, it would be about looking in,” he says. Wolf cites Edward Hopper as an influence: “This idea of being able to observe people who don’t know they’re being observed. Of course, one has this big responsibility at that moment, what one shows or doesn’t show. Everyone asks: ‘What did you see in Chicago? Did you see sex, did you see fights?’ And of course, it’s so banal. It’s people coming home, they’re tired, they sit in front of the TV and eat something.”

  • Street life

    Wolf balances his architecture photographs with a series of tiny images showing fragments from Hong Kong’s streets, collected in a new book, Hong Kong Trilogy."I started off on the architecture, but parallel to that I worked on the back door, which is the beginning of the Hong Kong Trilogy,” he says. “So I had the overall view of this architecture, and I always combined it with things going on behind these buildings, in the back alleys.”

  • Everyday life

    Wolf decided to move towards more project-based work in 2003, leaving Stern magazine and photographing a collection of chairs he had picked up from Hong Kong’s streets. Giving up photojournalism allowed him to follow his interests: “There’s not much room in mainstream media for this roundabout way of looking at things. You have to think too much, and it takes too long to really figure out what is meant – a magazine wants things you can understand in a second, and they have to be loud and to the point.” Instead, he focused on lost laundry, mops and gloves “combined by little topics, the cards and little strings which people attach to the pipes in the back alleys”.

  • Busting cliché

    After Wolf’s wife was offered a job in Paris, he moved to the French capital – but couldn’t find the street culture he craved. So instead he went online, searching Google Street View for tiny events – from bicycle crashes to people giving the finger to the camera – that cut through the clichés. “Everything which is messy – it isn’t there in Paris, because it’s like a movie set,” he says. “I was unhappy, I didn’t want to go out – and out of a reaction to that, I just decided to explore the city using Google Street View.” He flips the perceived view of Paris, finding moments that seem to mirror famous images (in one, two people embrace in the street, reflecting Robert Doisneau’s ubiquitous photograph Le Baiser de Hôtel de Ville).

  • Mapping the city

    Away from Street View, Wolf explores a cityscape made up of mops left by workers or labyrinths formed by ventilation pipes. “The Hong Kong Trilogy is about being able to decipher the city, being able to read the city based on the vernacular, and it’s something that can be applied to any city more or less,” he says. “If you’re in tune with these things, it just makes walking through a city a much more interesting experience than if you just go to the Eiffel Tower – or in Hong Kong, if you just go to the Star Ferry – if you’re aware of the everyday culture, cities become very rich visually.”