Art photographer reaps rewards of snap decisions

Michael Wolf took leaps of faith when he moved to Hong Kong and into art photography, writes Oliver Clasper

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 5:09pm

Sitting in his Chai Wan studio, photographer Michael Wolf is looking back at his life. "I had a mid-life crisis. I was 39 and working on a story about Van Gogh fakes in Amsterdam. For some reason that evening, I became quite reflective and I wondered what I was doing with my life," he says.

"I wasn't satisfied and needed a change. I lay on my bed, closed my eyes and pictured a globe. And I went everywhere on it. I was willing to do anything, but I needed to feel it. Athens, Moscow, Buenos Aires. In the end I landed on Hong Kong. I had never thought about that city before, but it was like an epiphany. I knew right then and there that I had to go. It was a wonderful moment."

I travelled a lot as a child, and was a habitual flea market visitor. I was interested in old, broken, so-called 'useless' things
Michael Wolf

We've been talking for at least an hour and Wolf doesn't look like stopping. Time has evaporated. He's loquacious and accommodating. In 20 minutes we'll head up to the roof to do a photoshoot, and he'll lead me to the highest point of the industrial building and lie as close to the edge as possible.

One of Hong Kong's most respected photographers, Wolf is best known here for his photos of buildings: high-rise apartments in all kinds of weary-looking states and colours, cropped and straightened in such a way that the windows reach the edges of the frame and beyond. Look closer and you can see the clothes hanging out to dry, or a figure in one of the windows. Wolf's large photos display a sense of the infinite that is as misleading as it is real.

"These were shot with an Arca-Swiss Misura and Zeiss lenses, so this is almost exactly as it is," he says. "If I really were to be objective, I'd go back and show you the whole building, but then you might say 'So what?' These pictures are misrepresenting the truth anyway, as by cropping away the sky and horizon I am making the suggestion that they are bigger than they are. I am creating an illusion."

These days, wander down any grimy, dark back alley from North Point to Lai Chi Kok, and you may find a man in his 50s taking photos of mops and gloves, windows, chairs, lost laundry, and other implements of the working man. The mundane and the ordinary interest Wolf, alongside the sublime. "I think it has a lot to do with my background. I travelled a lot as a child, and was a habitual flea market visitor. I was interested in old, broken, so-called 'useless' things. It's part of who I am. That's the way I'm wired."

These particular photos - some of which date back a decade or so but have been languishing on his computer or in his cupboards - form the basis of the latest book that is as abstract as it is quotidian. Hong Kong Trilogy will be released later this month, and it features photos of everyday objects found on Hong Kong's streets, shot on regular 35mm, as well as 4x5 and his iPhone. The book is small, as are the photos, a sea change from the large-format photos he produced for the "Architecture of Density" series.

Wolf didn't start off as a conceptual photographer. For 25 years he was a photojournalist - and he was extremely good in that career; the awards attest to that. But "if you work in that way for so long you internalise. I couldn't lift a camera and frame something without it being for a magazine project. It was crazy. I had to wean myself off that way of looking."

Most of Wolf's reportage work was for the German magazine Stern, and it wasn't until his mental globe trip that night in Amsterdam that he decided a change was necessary. He had to alter his attitude, his approach and his equipment. "I realised that it was going to be difficult to go from photojournalism and declare myself an 'art photographer'. So it was important for me to change the way I photographed. Not to use 35mm, but to use medium or large format, to use a tripod, to work slowly, and to be very aware of what I'm photographing."

The decision to move to Hong Kong mirrored a similar experience he had when he was 14. He was living in northern California with his parents, both artists in their own right. He had picked up photography as a hobby and began to shoot the student protests and sit-ins around the University of California, Berkeley campus. It was the late 1960s, and the Vietnam war was a stain on the nation's conscience.

"It was just exciting to beat the curfew and get out onto the rooftops and to see these protesters and police battling each other, and I would go back every night and develop the photos," Wolf recalls.

One of the photographs he took of a policeman facing a group of protestors made the cover of a San Francisco camera magazine, and not long after that a friend of his father's visited from Germany and took a look at the young boy's work.

"He asked me if I had thought about studying at the Folkwang-Hochschule in Essen, and whether I had heard of Otto Steinert, who was a great proponent of subjective photography, and who also taught there," he recalls.

"I applied, and three months later I received a card requesting me to go to the admissions office. That was probably the meeting that changed my life."

Wolf has enjoyed many years as one of the world's great photographers, but for now he's content to lie as close to the edge as possible and close his eyes.

Hong Kong Trilogy book launch, Feb 22, 3pm-8pm, Michael Wolf Studio, Unit 504, Block A, Kailey Industrial Building, 12 Fung Yip Street, Chai Wan. Inquiries: