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These Unbelievable Photos Make Hong Kong Look Like Abstract Art

Michael Wolf

The photographer Michael Wolf's study of Hong Kong, "The Architecture of Density," began with the SARS outbreak in 2002. As many people became sick and others left the city, it dawned on Wolf that, despite eight years in the city as a photojournalist for the German magazine Stern, he had never completed a personal project. “I bundled up wife and son and sent them back to Germany and I stayed in Hong Kong and started working on 'Architecture of Density,' so it was basically a situation where I really felt this need to do my own interpretation of the city,” Wolf says. This project turned into an intricate and meticulous study of the megacity, and Wolf gradually leaving behind photojournalism for fine art photography. “In art there’s no rules, you can do whatever you want. With a magazine you’re always confined to pictures on a page. You have an editor, I had an art director, there are certain expectations you have to meet.”

Courtesy of Michael Wolf

Maïa Booker: How did you first come to focus on the architecture of Hong Kong, and what lessons have you taken from this project?

Michael Wolf: I moved here in 1994, and that was the result of that I was living in Germany and I had a mid-life crisis, I was 39 years old and I somehow felt I’d done all I could and was a bit disillusioned. And I thought it might be interesting to go to someplace totally different. Architecture of Density was the first topic that made me think in depth about where I live and what it’s like to live in this city. I'd always lived in Europe where everything was very tame, and even in the U.S. things are relatively tame, even New York. Europe was too predictable for me. Paris looks like a movie set, it hasn’t changed in 120 years. You don't have massive buildings like this, so I developed the topic and I sort of covered different aspects of it. Architecture was one in a whole series of different themes which all have the large umbrella of "life in cities."

Courtesy of Michael Wolf

MB: What is so striking is that buildings appear to look like beehives. There is no sky, just patterns. In a couple of the photos, it takes a couple seconds to figure out what you’re looking at. At first there is no human presence, but then you see these hints of objects, people’s belongings in the window. What is it that you’re trying to show with this series, these images of an overpopulated city with hardly any signs of human life?

MW: For people to really take a close look at photographs and be moved by them, they have to be visceral. A very conceptual picture, you understand it intellectually, but it doesn’t really grab you. So I had originally photographed these buildings as a whole, with sky, land, so you could see the whole building but when I looked at them, I wasn’t convinced that it worked. And then I experimented: I started cropping the pictures so I just had the buildings without the sky, without the horizon and suddenly I realized there was something there which was more than just buildings. Then I went out and photographed them that way and that turned out to be the correct decision because everyone I showed them to was extremely fascinated by them and the interesting thing about it is that by using this stylistic solution by eliminating sky and horizon you give the feeling of unlimited size, because you have no idea how big the building is. It could be 100 stories or 200 stories, it could be a mile long. This illusion of unlimited size really conveys what we experience in megacities. If you go to Shanghai or Hong Kong or to any of the big Chinese cities you have this tremendous density around you.

Courtesy of Michael Wolf

And what you have to think of is that the prints I exhibit are very big 48’’x64’’ or 70’’x90’’. And on many of these buildings as you mentioned when you get up close, you see a pair of pants, or a t-shirt, or a mop hanging out of the window so you suddenly see these signs of habitation and that’s what makes them interesting. Because from far away they could really be a pattern, a tapestry, and then when you get closer you suddenly see there are people living there, it’s this duality which makes them interesting.

The people who buy my work–it’s quite ironic–because it’s collectors who usually have two or three apartments, each one five or six thousand sq. feet big, and they hang these prints in there because they’re beautiful, but at the same time they don’t realize the irony of people living in 400 sq. feet and they’re here in their huge space, it’s a bit subversive actually, that’s what I like about it.

MB: Is there any particular reason why they have no captions?

MW: The pictures are a metaphor for all megacities. So they are simply numbered from 1 to 225. 

Courtesy of Michael Wolf

MB: The absence of humanity in the photos, is that something that for you represents the present, or some kind of musing on the future?

MW: It’s only one facet of it. Right after I finished "Architecture of Density" I did another project called 100x100  which are 100 interiors of public housing estates where every room has the same measurements, 10 feet by 10 feet (x2), all the same. And I did this because at the openings of my shows people would always ask me ‘do people really live in there?’ They couldn't imagine it. It was at first next to impossible to do in Hong Kong because it’s very difficult to get in, people want their privacy, but then I fortunately found this public housing estate where you had 300 flats and I had very good access through a social worker. If you combine the two projects, they complement each other actually quite well because the first project is only the facade and the second is 100 portraits of people sitting in these rooms. It’s not that I’m ignoring the inhabitants, I just split it up. And then "Tokyo Compression" is exactly the opposite of Architecture, because I’m only focusing on single faces of people jammed in the subway.

Courtesy of Michael Wolf

MB: Are there other photographers or projects you're interested in that have touched on the theme of the mega city?

MW: Yes, Peter Bialobrzeski. Both of us have worked in parallel and his work is all Asia-based. When I was doing "Architecture of Density" he was doing a project called "Neon Tigers" about the mega cities in Asia, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Hong Kong and his approach  was photographing mainly at dusk, so there's a lot of this weird neon light and they’re beautiful photographs. It’s fascinating, you have the same topic but everyone brings his own way of solving it. When you think that by 2007, 50 percent of the world lived in megacities…

Courtesy of Michael Wolf

MB: Yes, and new UN projections came out in July saying that it would soon reach 70 percent, with a population increase of approximately two billion people by mid-century.

MW: For the quality of life I would say that this trend towards megacities is really not good.

If you look at Tokyo Compression, I mean imagine: where living space is so expensive that you have to commute every day for an hour and a half on a train going to work as a sardine, it’s not a life ... In Asia, everything is in constant flux, everywhere there’s something being built or a neighborhood being torn down and it’s very unpredictable because there are different rules here. In the 20 years I’ve been in Hong Kong it has changed dramatically. A large part of my work is also just documenting these older neighborhoods, the older architecture, because within ten years it’s all gone. So there’s there’s an aspect in my work that’s not only "wow,"  but it’s also "what are you doing to your cities, and what’s the quality of life here, and then do we really want this?"

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Maïa Booker is the photo editor at The New Republic. Follow Maïa @maiabooker.