Left: Michael Wolf, Untitled, 2007, color photograph, 40 x 53 7/16".
Right: Michael Wolf, Untitled, 2007, color photograph, 20 x 25".
(Both works from the series "Transparent City.")
The Asian- and European-based photographer Michael Wolf is known for
his fine-art and editorial photographs depicting rapid growth in
Asian cities. A new series of photographs made in Chicago,
"Transparent City," goes on view this week at the Museum of
Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is collected in a book just
published by Aperture.
THE EXPERIENCE OF PHOTOGRAPHING in America was not much different
from photographing in Asia, really. The challenge was more
conceptual: After working so long in Hong Kong and China, I wasn't
sure I was capable of working somewhere else. I feel in tune with
what is happening in the East, and am so inspired by the
architecture, food, people, and flux of life there, that I was afraid
I'd feel disconnected from an urban landscape in another part of the
world. Luckily, when I came to Chicago in 2006 to install some
photographs, I rode an elevated train into downtown from the airport.
It was a wonderful visual experience, looking out and seeing everyone
through the office windows. I remember arriving at the museum and
meeting the curator, and by my third or fourth sentence they asked
whether they could arrange an artist residency for me. A year later,
the deal was done.
I had thought about working in New York, in part because I've worked
so long with what I call "architecture of density" in Hong Kong. But
there are logistic problems in New York that don't arise in Chicago.
In Chicago, the buildings are spread out, they're more loosely
structured, and ten- or twelve-story parking garages are interspersed
between them. From the garages, you can look into buildings. I would
go up onto the twelfth floor of a parking structure and get a nice
view into the neighboring building. To prepare, I went onto Flickr
and printed out every photo of the city's downtown Loop, then drew
red arrows pointing to all of the roofs to which I wanted access. In
Hong Kong, every building has guards and you must apply for
permission to get onto the roof, but researchers at US Equities, who
supported my residency, were able to get me access to 99 percent of
the rooftops from which I wanted to photograph.
I began my series "Architecture of Density" by photographing close-
ups of vernacular subjects in the back alleys of Hong Kong's downtown
high-rises. I enjoyed the photographs but thought the series of
seventy or so images was conceptually one-dimensional. I felt the
series would be enriched if I could bring in another layer of
meaning, so I began to take photographs of the buildings from a
distance. In Chicago, I worked in the opposite direction, beginning
with the architecture. I felt, however, that I was bumping up against
the same problem. Then one evening I was looking at a photograph I
had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the
exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though
I had probably been standing there for twenty minutes.
It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every
file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in
those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on
the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TVs in the
evening. It was a bit lonely, particularly when I was photographing
corporate office towers during the first banking crisis in November–
December 2007—I could see through my telephoto lens the tension and
stress those bankers were feeling. By zooming in on details, I manage
to introduce a certain vernacular visual language as well as balance
the faraway with the up close.
I don't consider these works portraits; I'm not doing a portrait of
Chicago. In fact, the city's characteristics don't really figure into
my discussions of the series. It could be any large urban city. I
simply proceeded by answering the question, Which vantage point gives
me the ability to look into a building? One building that fascinated
me was the very big courthouse downtown. The judge's rooms are in the
corners of the building, and I wanted to catch a moment when lawyers
were standing in the hallways of seven or eight consecutive floors so
that the image would depict them locked into little cells, like a
Robert Wilson stage design. Despite the unpredictability of my
process, I have very specific images in mind as I work. Edward Hopper
was a particular inspiration for this series, and I was looking for
the types of images he specialized in. I was trying to translate an
idea—or, rather, to find it in reality.
— As told to Brian Sholis