‘An extraordinary eye’: Michael Wolf, famed photographer who shot Hong Kong’s ‘Architecture of Density,’ dies aged 65
Wolf was born in Munich, Germany in 1954, and was raised in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He attended college at the University of California, Berkeley and later received a degree in visual communication from the University of Essen.
He moved to Hong Kong in 1994 while working as a photojournalist for Stern magazine, and started working under his own name from 2002 onwards.
Best known locally for his photography series “Architecture of Density” (2009), Wolf depicted residential blocks as dense patterns with a sense of claustrophobia. Wolf described his work as focusing on “life in mega-cities,” which also included photographs of old neighbourhoods.
“A lot of people know me by now and my photos make them aware of their own identity and culture. [It’s] a culture which should be preserved,” Wolf said of his work in a 2016 interview.
“What I learnt from Michael was that it takes an extraordinary eye to see the ordinary, no matter how small or strange that is,” local artist Kacey Wong told HKFP on Friday. “Once captured, it is ordinary no more. A quick and calm foreign eye, with a critical mindset that is always observing and detecting, noticing all those strange little pictures that make up the big picture of Hong Kong.”
“Thank you Michael, a true HongKonger you are in my book – thank you for letting us see the Extraordinary Hong Kong,” he added.
Local artist Kacey Wong remembers Michael Wolf
One time, I purchased a large work of his – a photograph shows a wire fence with some disposable cups stuck onto it, a detail of an urban street corner which I found very Hong Kong. People want to throw away their garbage but don’t want to dump it on the street, so they just pushed it into the holes of the wire fence. I also collected a very small photograph of his, showing some roasted ducks being hung on a balcony with a housing estate in the background – that photo is still hung on my kitchen door. He later told me I was the first Hong Kong person who actually bought his artwork – I was so shocked to hear that, since he was so famous already in my mind. He said museums around the world collected his photography work, but not the museums in Hong Kong for some strange reason. I tried to comfort him by saying that seeing one’s own culture is difficult, it is like a blindspot – maybe the museums think it is nothing new since these urban landscapes are so “ordinary” on every street corner. As Michael’s reputation grew, the local museums did finally collect his work – I was very happy for him.
What I learnt from Michael was that it takes an extraordinary eye to see the ordinary, no matter how small or strange that is. Once captured, it is ordinary no more. A quick and calm foreign eye, with a critical mindset that is always observing and detecting, noticing all those strange little pictures that make up the big picture of Hong Kong. Thank you Michael, a true HongKonger you are in my book – thank you for letting us see the Extraordinary Hong Kong.
Wolf won the top prize from the World Press Photo Awards in 2005 and 2010, among other accolades.
His work on China, including a portrait series of the country’s factory workers, also gained widespread acclaim.
His other works include more than 30 photobooks, including Inside/Outside (2009), Real Fake Art (2011), Tokyo Compression (2010), Transparent City (2008), Hong Kong: Front Door/Back Door (2005), and Sitting in China (2002).
Additional Reporting: Tom Grundy.