HONG KONG, CHINA
Immune Media's Questions for Michael Wolf
1. What was the original purpose of the Transparent City series? Did the purpose change as you were shooting / editing it? What did you learn in the process?
For more than 4 years, I had been working in Hong Kong on the Architecture of Density series. I was curious if my style of architectural photography—no sky and no horizon, where the eye is not allowed an escape from the photograph and the buildings seem to go on forever—could be applied to buildings in other cities.
In Chicago, I learned that location is everything. It was crucial that I get onto rooftops, and in Chicago I had a great researcher at US Equities, the company which sponsored my artist in residency. My Hong Kong work is all about surface, Chicago was about transparency.
The idea for Transparent City Details came towards the end of the residency. I was not satisfied with "just" photographs of architecture, and wanted to add another layer of meaning to the project. I experimented with tiny crops of details I saw in my files (50-60kb of a 112mb file), which I then blew up to 48x60 inch prints.
'What I found, actually, is how boring everyday life is. When I thought about it, one of the fantasies that I had was that I would get up onto these rooftops every night—for four or five or six hours—and I would look into hundreds of windows, and I would see all these thrilling things going on. But, ultimately, all I saw was either people sitting and reading or people sitting in front of a computer. In the condominiums, it was people sitting in front of big flat-screen TVs eating dinner—and there were a lot of people alone.
It was like an Edward Hopper painting. In fact, I was greatly influenced by Hopper, taking these photographs—even walking along the streets at night and looking into restaurants. It was almost a cliché. You’d see these Nighthawk-like scenes at eleven at night—two people sitting at a table discussing things or a waiter wiping a table—and so Hopper’s paintings were in my mind while taking these. But it was a little sad to see, night after night, in all these buildings, that it was really just single people between the ages of twenty-five and forty, tired after work, sitting on the sofa watching TV. I was a bit disillusioned. I thought it would be more exciting than that.'
The idea was to print both the details and the architecture very large and hang them side by side—the closer one got to the pixelated details, the less one recognized, and with the architecture, it was exactly the opposite - the closer on got to the print, the more one saw. So I was playing with qualities inherent in the medium of photography.
2. I'd describe your work as straightforward...in that there's often a strong linear component, or a play on symmetry. The work seems often to be shot from eye level, from straight on...even your portraits (not to mention the "Le Petit Journal' and 'Propaganda' stuff). What's up with that?
I find that in my photographs of architecture, a high level of precision underscores the effect that the image has on the viewer. Ideally, I want people to react viscerally to my images, don't want the distractions of crooked lines. The sharpness is also important - one should be able to see every pencil or even paperclip lying on a desk, if possible. It takes a long time to digest a 48x60 inch photo as there is so much going on in the image.
3. What's the first time you ever got paid for doing photography?
Before I earned my living as an artist, I worked as an editorial photographer. The first reportage which I was paid for was in 1976 for a piece I did about pigeon racing in the Ruhr area of Germany.
4. How much Photoshop is too much?
Difficult to say—in photojournalism the boundaries between what one can and can't do are very clear. But in art, everything is possible.
5. Now that everyone's a photographer, will professionals survive?
Of course the profession will survive. In the art world, the concept/idea is extremely important, especially if one works in the medium of photography. Nowadays everyone can use a camera, but not everyone has an original idea.
6. Would you rather live in a home that's a human aquarium (glass surround with no curtains or blinds), or live in a home with no windows? Why?
I happen to live in a home which is a human aquarium and love it. I often sit for hours at my window in my apartment on the 14th floor in Hong Kong and look out into the sea of windows surrounding me. When I go to bed, I close the curtains.
7. So much of your work seems to have to do with the relationship of humans to structures. Yes? No? Why?
I live in Hong Kong—which is an extremely dense and hyperactive city. My work reflects my feelings and thoughts about the place where I live. The overall theme of my work is "life in cities." At parties I tell people exactly that - that I photograph "life in cities."
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Michael Wolf was born in Munich, Germany in 1954. He grew up in the USA and studied at UC Berkley and at the University of Essen in Germany. He has been living and working as a photographer and author in China for ten years.
In addition to countless international exhibitions and contributions to wide spectrum of editorial pieces, Michael has (6) published photography books and (5) special editions. Throughout his series Wolf continually draws into question notions of public and private space, anonymity and individuality, history and modern development.
To see more of Michael's work, go HERE. To listen to a 2005 interview with Mr. Wolf, go HERE.