Photographs by Michael Wolf, essays by Natasha Egan and Geoff Manaugh
Aperture, New York, 2008. Hardbound with dustjacket. 112 pp., 60 four-color illustrations. 10½x13¾"e;.
The Transparent City Photographs by Michael Wolf, essays by Natasha Egan and Geoff Manaugh published by Aperture, 2008
Modern physics teaches us that what we perceive as solid mass is composed mostly of empty space. It's a difficult concept to get your mind around, especially when you stump your toe or fill a cup with coffee, but the photographs German photographer Michael Wolf has taken in Chicago depict our urban skyscraper environments as a model of that concept. Working from rooftops that allow him to eliminate the street and often the sky from his straight-on shots, and waiting for autumn afternoons when lights illuminate occupied offices, he offers us porous images of a city that is more air than mass. Wolf's earlier work from China featured monolithic apartment blocks that he flattened into abstract patterns. Even though in Chicago he occasionally shoots a brick façade or takes a bird's-eye view that emphasizes the interlocked masses of the city, what catches his interest time and again are shots where we peer with him into offices and apartments where he discovered what he admits to be the rather mundane drama of everyday life. When he chooses to zoom in for a close-up, he works with the digital files of his larger images and produces still lifes and portraits where the pixilation echoes the gridded structures of the buildings themselves.
Wolf says his first close-up resulted from investigating an image in which he discovered a man in a window opposite the rooftop he was working from giving him the finger. Wolf might be flattering himself here. Perhaps this man stands in his apartment window every afternoon and flips Chicago the bird. The hints of narrative in these images encourage such speculative scenarios. The images themselves have not been manipulated. Wolf has not required digital cutting and pasting to produce the juxtaposed architectural styles, nor has he staged the scenes taking place in the interiors - even when they seem too good to be true. The executive practicing his putt, transformed into a blocky robot by pixilation, was apparently doing just that. We can imagine Wolf's delight when he found, among the dozens of condos visible in one night shot, a man watching Rear Window on an enormous plasma screen.
That Hitchcock film hovers over this project as a sort of tutelary spirit. People likely to encounter these images, which were first exhibited at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography, are probably comfortable with their voyeuristic tendencies and are more than willing to accept Wolf's invitation to indulge them. We are often told that the excitement of living in a city comes from the street. Wolf removes himself from that noisy world and makes his case for the cooler pleasures of observing from a safe distance the almost glacial stillness of urban life.