Cities are ugly places. Buildings back on to each other, people rush around and it’s a daily struggle to avoid being hit by a bus. Even the odd facade and historical site can’t ward off the overwhelming atmosphere of a city from being grey dullness.
Luckily for city-dwellers like me, there are some who can see past the unwelcoming appearance of many of the world’s metropolises. Michael Wolf has been photographing cities, amongst other subjects, for over ten years and has a fascinating back catalogue of mega cities, people and everything in between. The German born, American/European/Canadian educated and Paris/Hong Kong resident obviously draws his inspiration from numerous countries and cultures and that is what makes his photography so universal in appeal and scope.
Much of his work focuses on repetition; either very similar images are repeated across the canvas or a geometric pattern covers the entire image, confusing the viewer as it becomes all too much to take in. This in itself is a commentary on the busy lives of the cities – where to look, what to do and where to go are daily questions that confront us from all angles.
…consists entirely of photographs taken of Google Street View…
As if Wolf wanted to prove he was simpatico with the modern sentiment, one of his more recent exhibitions, ‘Street View’, consists entirely of photographs taken of Google Street View images on from his computer. They are collected into mini-series, such as ‘Eiffel Tower’, a collection of views of the Parisian tower, and ‘Portraits’, pixellated images of people carrying their shopping home, passionately kissing in a doorway or bolding brandishing a rifle.
Critics compare this collection to Pop Artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and, like the Pop Artists, Wolf comments on modern society, highlighting our dependence on Google and the internet. By using a different medium – photography as opposed to sculpture or painting – Wolf makes his work all the more immediate, effortlessly connecting the city, person or toy, in the case of his ‘The Real Toy Story’ collection, with the viewer.
…there are millions living in identical flats in cities across the globe…
It is his ‘Architecture of Density’ that I find the most interesting; repetition is again strong here, as Wolf emphasises the mundanity of the buildings that surround us. Despite their uniformity, by merit of Wolf photographing them they are elevated to a new level of curiosity and beauty. The harsh outlines, angles and colours of the city serve to remind us how little we are not only in the city but in the world – there are millions living in identical flats in cities across the globe.
Whilst commenting on how inconsequential we are sounds a bit depressing, Wolf somehow manages to focus more on curiosity than condemnation; because it’s almost impossible to distinguish which city the photographs are of, Wolf seems to be wandering around the globe and wondering why all cities, although countries apart, eventually turn out to be very aesthetically similar. Upon first glance, the ‘Tokyo Compression’ series, portraying commuters crushed against metro doors, could be any city, anywhere. The annoyance, despair and exhaustion of those photographed certainly remind me of an early morning tube ride across London.
…They’re gritty, real, in your face and thought provoking…
Michael Wolf’s images are familiar and yet detached, removed and homeless, as they often don’t have names or locations. They’re gritty, real, in your face and thought provoking. The beauty and banality of modern city life is highlighted and merit at least a few hours on his website. You’ll emerge with a different perspective on your city, whether that’s London or elsewhere, but I can’t promise what that perspective will be.