“For the first time ever, working in close collaboration with the Hague Museum of Photography, the Rencontres d’Arles is presenting a selective overview of the autonomous works created by Wolf. Wolf’s key 21st-century theme is “life in cities”, as he observes it in vast metropolises like Tokyo, Hong Kong and Chicago. The striking feature of these impressive series is the changing points of view adopted by the artist in order to show the complexity of modern city life. The magnum opus of the exhibition is The Real Toy Story installation (2004), featuring over 20,000 plastic “Made in China” toys found by him in junk markets and second-hand shops in the United States. Amid this overwhelming array of mass-produced stuff for kids, Michael Wolf shows sympathetic portraits of individual Chinese assembly-belt workers producing toys to satisfy the manic worldwide demand for cheap consumer goods. “
Wim Van Sinderen
I know little of this photographer other than the name. His show is regarded as one of the important ones at this year’s Arles festival and is held in a former church as some other exhibitions are. Wolf is a German born the same year as myself. He is a fine example of a photojournalist who has become a visual artist! The exhibition is a retrospective and focuses on “Life in Cities”.
It starts with early work from 1976. Black and white work from the Ruhr region made for his thesis demonstrates “His ability to uncover the symbolic value in seemingly insignificant details reveal how urbanisation affects the reality of people’s daily lives.” The prints seem dark and brooding yet expressive; the lack of captions is not important as the meaning of the images is apparent.
In the middle of the church are a series of large photographic prints which are close ups of high rise buildings. I need to inspect them from close quarters to make sure they are not models. The 3D effect is remarkable! In themselves these photographs are like designs and I wonder whether some of them have not been digitally altered to make them look bigger than they actually are yet this seems to be unlikely. The series is titled Architecture of Density and is more recent work having been made between 2003-2014 in Hong Kong.
Another series focuses on rooftops of Paris. Here space is collapsed so that vistas appear flat and more like designs though their function can be discerned.
Corner houses in Hong Kong is another fascinating series both visually and historically.
Wolf has also made a series of Parisian Google Street View blow ups.
Another series is in a room constructed to occupy a space 10′ by 10′ which is the size of the many rooms Wolf has photographed in an older tower block in Hong Kong. Each photograph features a portrait of it’s inhabitant sometimes inhabitants and the surrounding they have created for themselves. Again Wolf manages a powerful lifelike 3D effect in his imagery.
A series about Chicago shows both the faceless repetitive architecture of Chicago and simultaneously people working away inside the buildings. A twilight effect and an interesting viewpoint with people largely unaware they are being photographed.
In Tokyo Compression, Wolf shows people who have been pushed up against the windows of commuter trains. Many clearly do not wish to be photographed but cannot stop the photographer who is outside looking in. Some of the expressions are agonised as both their external and internal space is being invaded. Cleverly made yet questionable, a reminder of photography’s dark side and sometimes controversial means.
The Real Toy Story consists of a mass of plastic toys attached to a wall in which there are compassionate images of workers who make such toys. The effect is remarkably realistic.
Apart from collecting a huge amount of toys, he has also collected small chairs in a variety of manifestations.
There is a wall of video installations showing very short often 30 second movies of ingenious applications Wolf has encountered in Hong Kong.
Another wall shows a collection of items Wolf has made as a result of photographic work which includes objects like coat hangers and umbrellas.
While I like the psychology behind what Wolf is doing, as a photographer I am also impressed by his ability to render such, at times, life like imagery.