Wednesday 26 January 2011

Michael Wolf photography Architecture of Density

I really like Michael Wolf's urban images - they're about as abstract as you can go with 'straight' photography - often simplified into formal vertical and horizontal shapes and rendered in muted colours, I see them as a sort of abstract expressionist version of photography.

Wolf was born in Germany in 1954, raised in the United States and Canada, returning to Germany to study photography before spending the vast majority of his career in Asia.

In his best known series on Hong Kong’s highly compressed, often brutal architecture, Architecture of Density, Wolf uses the city’s sky-scraping tower blocks to great effect, eliminating the sky and horizon line to flatten each image and turn these façades into seemingly never-ending abstractions.

The formalism and deadpan approach of Architecture of Density echoes the work that emerged from the Düsseldorf school of Bernd and Hilla Becher (see earlier post). Like the work of Andreas Gursky (see preceding post) or Thomas Struth, Wolf’s photographs reveal a desire to document and connect with the world around him, but with a contemporary visual approach.

I’m showing examples of Wolf’s work in two blog posts – the first with images from the Architecture of Density series, the second from The Transparent City series, dealing with images from Chicago.

Wolf has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1995. Stimulated by the region's complex urban dynamics, he makes dizzying photographs of its architecture. One of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the world, Hong Kong has an overall density of nearly 6,700 people per square kilometer. The majority of its citizens live in flats in high-rise buildings. In Architecture of Density, Wolf investigates these vibrant city blocks, finding a mesmerizing abstraction in the buildings' facades.

Some of the structures in the series are photographed without reference to the context of sky or ground, and many buildings are seen in a state of repair or construction: their walls covered with a grid of scaffolding or the soft coloured curtains that protect the streets below from falling debris. From a distance, such elements become a part of the photograph's intricate design.

Upon closer inspection of each photograph, the anonymous public face of the city is full of rewarding detail- suddenly public space is private space, and large swatches of colour give way to smaller pieces of people's lives. The trappings of the people are still visible here: their days inform the detail of these buildings. Bits of laundry and hanging plants pepper the tiny rectangles of windows - the only
irregularities in this orderly design.

In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle called Wolf's work in Hong Kong "most improbable and humanly alert". In previous series, Wolf described the vernacular culture of the street. His early vision of the region dwelt on personal aesthetic gestures left in back doors and alleyways, such as makeshift seating in the streets. In these photographs, small tokens of human presence took precedence over
monumental architecture. Wolf continues to explore the theme of the organic metropolis- that which develops according to the caprice of its citizens as much as the planning of its architects. In Architecture of Density, hisvision has evolved to evaluate the high-rises that shape the spatial experience of Hong Kong's citizens. Wolf finds in each building a singular character, despite its functional purpose and massive form.

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