The Photographer’s Gallery – Key Speaker: Michael Wolf #TPGtalks

Friday 17th January, I visited The Photographer’s Gallery in London. I heard that one of my favourite photographers, Michael Wolf was doing a talk their and I was so excited, I bought tickets as soon as I heard. I met Michael Wolf in the book signing just a couple of hours before and had a short conversation and he said he admired my determination which I was really happy about!

The talk consisted of Michael talking about the beginning of his career, right up until his most recent works. Discussing the transition from being a photojournalist to working on more independent work! I was glued all the way through and found it all so interesting!
Michael Wolf met the Otto Steinert, The Professor of The Folkwang School, Essen, Germany in 1973 and he told Steinert that he was interested in photography. He then submitted his portfolio and was accepted to study at the school for a semester. He ended up staying on and completing his studies at the school. His thesis for Otto was the start of his photojournalistic career in 1976.
He became a photojournalist for Stern Magazine where he stayed for 8 years. He enjoyed photojournalism as it allowed him to be curious and get paid at the same time.

He showed us the following bodies of work
Lunchtime in the factory
He would document people on their lunch breaks at the factory. He found people sleeping, playing games, doing puzzles, crosswords and there was also one guy who charged 50cent to cut peoples hair.

Red Carpet
He would spend time at the carpet factory and photograph it this way as an indirect way of showing things. Here you find the red in the images to be very striking which really makes them stand out!

In 1993, Michael Wolf told us how it was then that he didn’t feel inspired anymore. He wanted to do something different. To help him what to decide next, he laid in bed, and pictured a globe. He pictured himself in many different cities such as New York, Moscow etc, but these didn’t do anything for him. The last place he mentally stopped at was Hong Kong. He says it was an epiphany! He had to go straight away. So he did! Here he was still contracted with Stern Magazine, where he carried on working until 2003, with his contract covering him whilst he was in Asia.

The Bastard Chairs of China
Independent work
Michael noticed how resourceful the Chinese were and that they didn’t through anything away. They didn’t care how things looked. Wolf noticed these chairs on the streets that people had made from recycling old objects and he found them very interesting so he began documenting this. One day, he was admiring this chair, and taking photos of it, he didn’t notice a group of people behind him. He was told to pack up his tripod and other equipment and leave. A few hours later he decided to return to photograph the chair again. To his shock, the chair had gone. (image 3)

‘Photography can preserve a subject, but too much attention can destroy it’

In 2001, their was a crisis in Hong Kong. The bird flu broke out and his contract was not renewed. He was now a freelance photographer. He said he found the change difficult due to the fact he was always visualising his images as a double page spread and he now had to break this habit. However, he was allowed to think about the style for the first time. His wife and son, flew back to Germany due to the bird flu, however, Michael wanted to continue working in Hong Kong.

Back Door
Michael Wolf explored the back alleys of Hong Kong

The Chinese don’t like to litter, so instead they place their rubbish in places knowing it wont look too messy. It is a very clean city with no vandalism.
He was so used to shooting people and events, this was all new to Wolf.

Architecture of Density
2003 – 2009
This is one of my favourite projects by the photographer. Using his architecture from the Back Door series, he would fold away the sky and surrounding areas so that he was just left with the buildings. This inspired him for a new body of work. In Hong Kong, land is rare, so buildings are built very dense and high up, so Wolf decided to record this through his photography.

( the above print, I have seen on display, and seeing it on a small screen does it no justice whatsoever!!)

Following on form this project, Michael then wanted to see inside these buildings. However, with such apartment blocks, there were tight security and people were funny about letting him in to photograph. Luckily, there was one apartment block that was to be knocked down, so Wolf managed to get in and photograph the rooms.

The project was named 100×100 because that was the sizes of the room. Each room was 10ftx10ftx10ft. Yet it is interesting to see what so many different people did with such a small space. He would ask each sitter the same questions, How long had they lived there? Did they like it? Did they work?

When Michael Wolf exhibits this work, he creates a room, the same size of those that he has documented and has the prints around these small rooms. This gives the viewer a sense of how small the spaces are. He included 100 images in exhibition.

Tokyo Compression
2010 – 2013
In Tokyo, during rush hour, the trains are most people’s worst nightmare. Michael Wolf documented the pain and the commuters uncomfortable natures as they rode the busy trains.
Rush hour was 7:30am to 8:45am, and trains ran every 80 seconds. Wolf would stand in the same place on the platform to get his portraits of those commuting to work.
Wolf has published 3 books on this project, Tokyo Compression, Tokyo Compression Revisited and Tokyo Compression Three. The first edition, I managed to buy the last ever copy and get it signed by Michael himself.

Transparent City
Parallel to Architecture and Density
Shot on digital for the first time. Large format camera with a digital back.

With these images, he began looking in the rooms. It was then he realised, these zoomed in would work well as a project alone.

He then began zooming in on banks, and documented ‘Worried Bankers’

These portraits can be seen from far away and can help you understand the people. Yet close up, you get to appreciate the architecture of the image.

Watching Windows

The above series raised attention from an English paper in Hong Kong. They desperately wanted to publish his work, however, Wolf said that it was a working progress and wanted no publication yet. They kept asking to publish his work, but he continued to say no. Two weeks later, these images appeared in the newspaper with the headline hinting that he was breaking the law.

Street View
2007 – 2012

Michael Wolf visited Paris after his wife got a job there, however he didn’t like it so returned to Hong Kong. He began to then explore Paris on google street view and document this.

The above image, inspired Wolf for a new body of work titled ‘FY’.

The street view work was exhibited on billboards in the street, back where the images initially came from.

Real Fake Art
Would buy paintings off people and would then create diptychs of the painting and then a portrait of the artist with the painting.

The Real Toy Story
Michael Wolf never had the luxury of playing with as many toys when he was younger, like most children.This inspired him for a body of work titled ‘The Real Toy Story’. Wolf went round hundreds of secondhand stores in search of 20,000 toys. He spent days and days attaching magnets to the back of each toy and placing them on a magnetic bored. He would then photograph this, and then use these as a real life exhibition. Portraits of toy factory workers would be embedded in between these toys. This exhibition opened just this week in Shanhai.

One thing I learnt at this talk, was more about what I want to do in the future. Travelling to other countries for photojournalistic work, and doing my own independent projects is my ambition, and I aim to follow in the similar steps of Michael Wolf!


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