Michael Wolf: Life in Cities

Eglise des Freres-Precheurs, Arles; 03/07/17 to 27/08/17

On reflection this is my favourite exhibition in the festival this year. I wasn’t familiar with Wolf before now (I recognised one project by sight but the name hadn’t rung a bell) but I will be doing further research after this. It’s a series of quite visually different projects each looking at an aspect of living in modern mega-cities (Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chicago).

The main focal point is The Real Toy Story (2004), a massive semicircular installation made up of images from Chinese toy factories embedded in a wall of thousands of toys. As you move through the space, portraits of workers at the production line give way to images highlighting the treatment of the workers: people sleeping on factory floors; people missing limbs, presumably due to industrial accidents. It’s a visceral assault on your eyes and brain, shining a light on the absurdity of uncontrolled consumerism and what it is doing to the people at the bottom of the supply chain.

Competing for your visual attention as you enter the exhibition space is the series of massive hanging images from the Architecture of Density project (2005-2009). These are large scale, deadpan captures of unfeasibly large Hong Kong tower blocks, with sky, ground and surrounding buildings cropped out to remove any sense of context or scale. From a couple of metres away they resemble graphic design pieces or computer-generated images, simple geometric patterns in alternating colours – but as you look more closely you see that these are thousands of (tiny) individual homes. There is so little external visual variation per apartment that there is an overwhelming sense of homogeneity that I found a little dispiriting. And yet at the same time I found these images really visually beguiling, beautiful even. It’s an example of seeing the everyday in a new way.

Wolf did a counterpart project to this, 100×100 (2006),  photographing the interiors of 100 of the 100 sq ft apartments, which gives an entirely different perspective and shows the occupants to be very heterogenous indeed. In an interesting presentational twist, these images are displayed inside a 10ft x 10ft room within the main exhibition hall, so you get a feel for the tiny living space. However, in terms of being visually distinctive, it’s probably the weakest series on show here; the other projects bear more of a sense of Wolf’s way of seeing the world, whereas this feels a little less unusual.


The project I had seen before was Tokyo Compression (2010-2013), voyeuristic pictures of subway passengers crammed up against the glass of the train windows. It comes across as faintly ludicrous that people live like this – which is, I presume, Wolf’s point here.


The other project I want to mention specifically (there are too many in all, it’s quite an expansive exhibition) is Paris Rooftops (2014), where he introduces yet another visual style for an entirely different, more traditional city. Through lens and colour palette choices he manages to compress three dimensions to resemble paintings more than anything else; you have to look quite closely to realise that these are photographs. Oddly, the style reminded me of Lowry paintings, albeit without the people.


Main takeaway

There are two key thoughts I’ve taken away from this. Firstly, it’s enlightening how one can produce work that is both consistently visually striking and in a variety of quite distinct styles; I realise seeing this exhibition that having a ‘personal voice’ doesn’t necessarily mean having a recognisable visual signature, it’s more about an approach or a sensibility towards a particular area of interest (city life in Wolf’s case).

Secondly, it’s a reminder that it is possible to find visually interesting subject matter anywhere, and it’s a case of observing it and choosing to capture it in a certain way. Wolf finds the amazing in the everyday; he isolates an aspect of his subject matter and holds it up to the viewer in such a way as to render it novel, intriguing or even absurd. Some of the most interesting things I’ve seen at Arles this year were inherently interesting subjects that someone has captured on camera; Wolf does something different in that he finds something that millions of other people walk past without noticing every day and he makes it interesting, makes you see it with fresh eyes.

This latter point is a simple one but its importance cannot be underestimated. One of the things I realised a couple of years into photographic study is that to look at the work of a photographer is to experience how they see the world, and this is much more true for photography than any other art form.

I really like the way Wolf sees the world.