Even after 20 years of living in Hong Kong, award-winning German photographer Michael Wolf is still finding fresh inspiration in the scenes others overlook. As he prepares to launch the latest of many books presenting the untidy, chaotic but essentially resourceful nature of our city, Localiiz quizzed the man who sees beauty beyond the blemishes about the meaning behind his most talked about projects.
Objects and their Owners
Whether it be a lone piece of laundry stranded on a power line or a makeshift drying rack stacked with mops and rubber gloves, it’s these seemingly insignificant inhabitants of Hong Kong’s back alleys that fill the pages of Michael Wolf’s latest book, Hong Kong Trilogy. The new offering marks a full conceptual circle back to the former photojournalist’s first non-editorial project Bastard Chairs, which saw China’s eternally patched up and botched together seats deliver a striking demonstration of the country’s devotion to productively and invention.
Michael is fascinated by the idea of objects revealing something about their owners, and somehow finds meaning and messages in the seemingly mundane and worthless.
“Before I came to Hong Kong no one ever wasted a look at a back alley and no one ever saw the beauty of the assemblages,” Michael told Localiiz. “All these things have meaning. They all reflect something about the local population, and I think that’s my art. It’s seeing these things and then deciphering them so it enriches people’s understanding and their experience in Hong Kong.”
Density and Space
Not all of Michael’s previous projects have such abstract meaning. Architecture of Density for example, which is currently on display at London’s Flowers Gallery, makes a loud and indisputable statement about Hong Kong’s overcrowding issues, showcasing our vertical village to maximum effect by eliminating both the sky and the ground from the frame.
“The problem with the lack of space in Hong Kong is well known, and every few months someone takes a picture of those caged homes and it goes viral,” said Michael. “After I released Architecture of Density, the first questions people asked me was ‘how do people live like that? What does it look like inside?’ That was what gave me the impetus to figure out a way to show that too.”
As others looked at the pictures and wondered about the thousands of lives behind the repeating shoebox abstractions, Michael gained access to the inner rooms of Shek Kip Mei, the city’s oldest housing estate, just two months before its demolition in May 2006. But unlike the outside onlookers who were shocked and appalled when they saw Michael’s pictures of the intensely cramped 100 x 100 rooms, the man behind the lens found himself inspired by the adaptably, ingenuity and resilience of their inhabitants.
“I gave everyone I photographed a questionnaire asking why they enjoyed living there, and 80% of people said because of the community,” explained Michael. “Ultimately it showed me that space doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you have friends. It’s better to live on 100 square feet and have 50 friends than to live on 5,000 square feet and have no friends.”
Privacy and Voyeurism
Although Michael gained permission to photograph the Shek Kip Mei residents, he doesn’t always feel the need for an invitation. One of his most controversial projects is Transparent City, a series shot in Chicago during the early days of the global financial crisis. Along with larger scenes of the cityscape as a whole, Michael produced a series of incognito portraits by zooming in on the windows of the office buildings he photographed.
Privacy debates were sparked in Hong Kong last year after Michael published 20 images from a similar project, Window Watching, in which he used a telephoto zoom to capture unaware residents eating dinner, watching TV and even exercising in their tiny apartments. The photos went viral on Chinese-language websites, with worried residents questioning whether the “voyeur” photographer was breaking Hong Kong privacy laws.
Although some of the faces are obscured by objects and window frames, others are clearly visible. Michael (and his attorney) insist however that neither Transparent City nor Window Watching constitute an invasion of privacy.
“I’m very discrete with what I do,” said Michael. “If see a couple fighting or making love, I’m not going to post it. If you can clearly identify someone or recognise faces I don’t think it’s fair and I wouldn’t want that happening with me either, but in a strictly legal interpretation, if I leave my curtains open, it’s my problem.”
Invasion and Art
Michael attributes what could be described as a lack of concern for his subjects to his training as a photojournalist, which he says taught him that intrusion can be necessary in the pursuit of art. This detached mind set is perhaps demonstrated most starkly in Tokyo Compression, a collection of close up portraits, this time exploring human, as opposed to architectural, density.
While some may try to squirm away or simply close their eyes, pressed up against the glass and unable to move, the subway commuters in these photographs are completely vulnerable to Michael’s prying lens. “Most art photographers would just take a step back and take a general view, but because I have this training, I’m really not afraid of rejection,” said Michael.
Home and Away
Although his unwitting subjects may wish to shut him out, rejection is not however something Michael has experienced from the wider world. His work has toured throughout Asia, Europe and the US, and is held in numerous permanent collections, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the German Museum for Architecture. He has also published 13 photo books, won the World Press Photo Award twice, and received a surprising and unprecedented honourable mention in 2011 for a series of stills sourced from Google Street View.
But wherever in the world his work takes him, the shabby chic streets of Hong Kong will always be Michael’s main muse.