Michael Wolf @ The Photographers Gallery

Hong Kong Photography by Michael Wolf. Image: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Hong Kong Photography by Michael Wolf. Image: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra  flickr.com/photos/dalbera/

There is no doubt that Michael Wolf’s photography is intriguing. His ability to install character and emotion in the menial as well as searching beyond the obvious image is what separates him from the rest. What proves even more awe-inspiring are the stories and creative processes behind his images. The Photographer’s gallery event saw Wolf present both images and the stories behind them in a personal and humorous presentation.

A mid-life crisis would see Wolf yearn for a move away from work in Europe and result in a move to Hong Kong. Wolf’s non-editorial work begins with the creation of ‘Bastard Chairs’, a project documenting the DIY chairs littering the backstreets and ally-ways of Chinese cities. As Wolf notes, the chairs themselves, as well as looking visually fascinating, portray the thriftiness and conscious efforts of the Chinese to never let materials go to waste. Just as Wolf is comfortable in photography again, crisis strikes. Bird-flu shakes China (killing a friend of the family) causing Wolf’s wife and son to leave Hong Kong, but Michael stays behind.

What follows is a change of style. Twenty five years of thinking photojournalism are put on the back burner for a more artistic approach and the risk pays off! Wolf reveals the minute details of his beloved Hong Kong and the results are beautiful. The lessons are there for all to be seen. You can be in a place for an extended time, but if you begin to look closely or differently at your surroundings, the change in viewpoint can prove inspiring. The inability to waste, highlighted in ‘Bastard Chairs’ is again seen in the ‘Backdoor’ set of pictures and what may at first seem blunt and minimal speaks lengths in the way in which citizens of his beloved Hong Kong live.

The presentation moves on to the iconic ‘Architecture of Density’ project, another result of Wolf’s refusal to be content with initial impressions. The lead up to the project saw Wolf taking pictures of the colossal repeating architecture in Hong Kong. Laying his pictures out on the floor, he folded away the exterior detail until just the repeating patterns of the buildings were left, leaving the subjects almost unidentifiable. The theme of claustrophobia is then followed in the presentation by the again, iconic project ‘Tokyo Compression’. This project saw Wolf plant himself in a Tokyo subway station for 30 days, Monday to Friday, morning to night with a camera fixed on the passing windows of subway trains. The results are again fascinating but as is so often the case with his work humorous.

The presentation nearing an end takes in one final project before ending in a muted Q&A session (it is obvious that the presentation itself has quelled all hunger for information). ‘The Real Toy Story’ is the ocean of Michael Wolf’s creativity. Wolf explains that as a child, his parents loathed things American, especially TV and toys. Plastic toys were especially frowned upon. With this in mind, after a minor test on his son, Wolf drove from San Fran to LA picking up some twenty thousand toys from thrift stores. He then sanded them down, attached magnets and stuck them to huge metal boards with muted images of Chinese toy factory workers scattered amongst the installation. The project is a real exclamation of Wolf’s skills. His photojournalism, his talents in creating and the progression of an idea, his love of Chinese thrift, his personal life and his humorous personality all combine to make another great project.

As opposed to the typical photojournalistic realities, Wolf’s work can teach us that at the end of the day, creative thriftiness is all we need to better ourselves.


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