Admired Photographers: Michael Wolf

A new chapter of my series Admired Photographers! After writing about historical figures in photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, and Dorothea Lange, this week I would like to introduce you to a contemporary figure whose work captivated me when I first discovered him back in 2017, German-born photographer Michael Wolf.

Even though he passed away in 2019, I consider his work absolutely relevant and influential in depicting contemporary society in urban environments, especially in Hong Kong where Wolf was based until his death.

Michael Wolf was born in Germany, even though he grew up in the USA and Canada, studying at UC Berkeley, returning to Germany to continue his academic studies at the Folkwang School¹. He began working as a photojournalist for the German magazine Stern, whose assignments took him to China, especially Hong Kong where he finally settled and produced most of his influential work². From 2001, Michael Wolf left the magazine to focus on his personal projects, publishing more than 13 photobooks and receiving the distinguished World Press Photo Award twice, in 2005 and 2010, getting an honorable mention also in 2011¹.

His period in Hong Kong opened up a world of possibilities, something that he started to explore while working on his last assignment for Stern on China’s toy factories². Wolf wanted to explore the world around him, the culture of the people in that huge city, with its complexity and urban aesthetics. He captured a new way of documenting the city’s architecture, emphasizing the invisible lives of the people who inhabit those concrete buildings, adding the human touch and presence of the photographer². Wolf was interested in many aspects of urban life, experimenting not only with architecture photography but also documentary and street.

Photograph included in my series Hidden Souls. Shot in Granada, Spain (2017)

I first came across Michael Wolf’s work back when I was developing my photography series in 2017. I clearly remember the image that got me hooked on his work and style. The image was part of his latest series, Tokyo Compression, where Wolf shot passengers compressed to the small windows of Tokyo’s subway. The claustrophobic aesthetics experienced through that depiction of Tokyo’s citizens were astonishing, the mood transmitted through the almost invisible and blurred faces by the condensation dripping from the windows as a real work of art and a true reference in my understanding of street photography.

Later on, when I had well undergone my series Hidden Souls, I discovered his project as a photobook Hong Kong Trilogy, in which Wolf selected photographs taken in the streets of Hong Kong of everyday objects, arranged in ways that they almost looked staged, like a still life painting, capturing the invisible hand of human intervention and subjectivity in objects such as cleaning gloves, mops, coat hangers, and clothes. This made me realize that we shared a common approach and search of the aesthetics of every day in our surroundings, exposing its complexity and beauty through discarded objects full of humanity.

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Photographer, writer, and artist trying to understand the world

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