Urban photographer Michael Wolf launches first UK solo exhibition

By Pamela Lee

Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf is a photographer who studies the way people live in urban communities, where space and privacy are at a premium. He has opened his first UK solo exhibition at the Flowers Gallery, London with a personal affinity for humanistic documentary photography it was top of my list. What I experienced was both an aesthetically remarkable and extremely emotional exhibit!

The exhibition focused on three of his projects: Architecture of Density, Tokyo Compression and Transparent City. Architecture of Density studies Hong Kong’s large residential buildings with images on large format with intrinsic detail and no context of ground or sky. Transparent City depicts the architecture of Chicago city where the buildings are composed and compressed into single surface rather than shown individually.

Although the location and context of these bodies of work are different, for me the images of both held the same emotive messages. They are an agitating comment on 21st century urbanisation and the obliteration of the individual within the city. I believe the images could be viewed on two levels – from a distance, as a whole and up close, in examined detail.

From a distance the photographs stop being buildings and become patterns and graphic images. They are an endless series of lines and grids that remind me of the conformity and regularity of Bauhaus modernist designs (Wolf has exhibited in the Bauhuas Museum in Dessau).

They seem carefully constructed yet somehow chaotic at the same time. The complex framework of the buildings in this context creates almost a ripple effect within the picture. The intricate lines and grids fool the eye and it feels as if there is an uneasy movement within the image – as if the buildings themselves have come to life.

My favourite of his architecture photograph is the downtown district of Chicago (above) reflected in it’s own image. Wolf has compressed the buildings together to create one massive network of reflective windows. I feel that this is a strong metaphor for how city buildings become synonymous with each other and the voyeurism that this creates.

These views of never ending building grids are contrasted dramatically when you look at the images closely and with extreme detail. You can see how each is made of millions of tiny unique segments – these segments are of people’s lives. You quickly forget the huge scale of the architecture and get lost in the minute details and differences in each of the windows or balconies – the way the curtains are hung, The Simpsons on a TV, pictures on the walls, washing out to dry.

This touches on the density under which the residents of the residential buildings live but we are soon introduced to the claustrophobia within the buildings. Wolf’s images from Architecture of Density were released the book Hong Kong Outside, this book had a companion volume entitled Hong Kong Outside in which Wolf photographed 100 identical apartments in one of Hong Kong’s public housing blocks.

These images are presented within a square of interior walls in the exhibition space. This is extremely   effective as it creates the sense of stepping inside the buildings. Each apartment measured just 100sq ft.

His pictures convey the claustrophobia of these confines spaces and again lets us examine the similarities and differences of the individual who lives within. I found this use of space adds an extra dimension to the exhibition and I began to feel claustrophobic myself as the inhabitants stared back at me from within their enshrouding homes.

Tokyo Compression examines how the struggle for individuality in a grid locked world continues in the crowded Tokyo underground. This series of images documents the Tokyo commuters crammed against steamed up windows. In most cases their eyes are closed and their faces hold blank expressions as if the subject is trying to remove them self mentally from where their body is trapped.

The condensation on the windows adds to the inexplicable sense of drowning amongst the masses. There is a surgical and very removed feel to the images as they are separated from us by glass. One man wears a mouth mask – but on his clasped hands, pushed against the window he also wears a wedding ring, an eerie reminder that he is a person, with a wife, a family and a life beyond the train within the city walls.

Wolf’s photography is powerfully emotive and deeply involving. It is both agitating and awe inspiring. I feel I could examine his images again and again – always finding something new. I highly recommend a visit to this thought provoking and aesthetically groundbreaking exhibit of his work. If you want to experience a surreal exhibition you have until 7th January 2012 to go along.

Images: Michael Wolf