Michael Wolf • Photographer, Germany

Tokyo Compression

Landscape Stories: Are there any photographers, bodies of work or movements that have influenced or inspired you?
Michael Wolf: The most important single influence in my career as a non editorial photographer has been the German photographer Michael Schmidt with his body of work "Waffenruhe (Cease Fire), 1987". I also am a great admirer of John Gossage's work, especially his books. They showed me a way out of editorial photography.

Michael Wolf's influences. Copyright © Michael Wolf

Landscape Stories: Your book 'Tokyo Compression' has been selected as one of the 30 most influential photobooks of the last decade by Martin Parr on PhotoIreland Festival. Could you tell us something more about the creation of the book (editing, printing, etc.)? Did you start the project with the idea of making a book?
Michael Wolf: My first exposure to Tokyo Compression has been in 1995 when I was working on a story about the aftermath of the Sarin gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo sect. I shot 6 frames of faces of early morning commuters in subway windows which turned out to be very powerful images. I filed them away in a folder labeled "future topics". In 2008, I decided to revisit the subway station and expand on the series. I spent 20 days (monday – friday) every morning from 7.30 till 8.45 at the same subway station shooting portraits of people on their way to work. During the day, I would eat sashimi and edit what I had shot in the morning. At the time, I had no idea I would made a book out of this. All I knew was that the images fitted well into my overall project called "Life in Cities". A few months later, I emailed my edit to my publisher Hannes Wanderer in Berlin, and he immediately suggested to publish a book. Together we worked on a layout, sent back and forth between Hong Kong and Berlin as a pdf, and at some point we had a dummy we were satisfied with. The most important decision for me was to crop all the images so that it was a book of "portraits", not of subway windows. I went through every file and cropped out the faces in the windows, my crop tool set at 8 x 10 inches. This gave the series a formal cohesiveness. The series became a topology of faces, and a metaphor for life in the megalopolis.

From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf

Landscape Stories: In the project 'Tokyo Compression' people are framed by subway doors. Your pictures are all very close to the subjects, as to shorten the distance between you and them. How do you think photography can help in the exploration of the individual? How much importance do you attach to the anthropological side of your work?
Michael Wolf: This series was only possible because the subway's station architecture let me get so close to the windows of the train. I could get as close as 12 inches from the subway windows. This was on the side of the train were the commuters could not exit, therefore they had no escape from my camera, except that they could hold up their hand in front of their face, or hide behind the door frame, or in some cases, close their eyes: the thinking behind this is that if they don't see me, I won't see them. This element of inescapable proximity is crucial for the series, as I wanted to introduce the act of photographing into the topic. I wanted the viewer of the photographs to think not just about the situation of the commuters, but also about the act of photography, how invasive it can be; to question the moral and ethical aspects of the profession. Is it legitimate to take a photo of someone who does not want to have his/her photograph taken? I sometimes felt very ambivalent about the whole project, as many of the people whom I pointed my camera at obviously felt very uncomfortable. In the end I went ahead with it, because I felt that I was not humiliating any individual, rather, I was commenting/critiquing a social condition. In the end, the pictures became an incredibly powerful metaphor for an aspect of modern society, and kicked loose a great deal of thought about living conditions in mega cities.

From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf

Landscape Stories: How does the project evolve since you start shooting? How do you choose the places and people you photograph?
Michael Wolf: All my projects begin in my stomach: "my head follows my gut". I see something which exerts a strong emotional pull on me, and I start photographing, often without a clear idea of towards which direction the project is going to go, or if it even is a project. It can take me months, sometimes years to figure out the meaning of what I have done. The project "Sitting in China" for instance, began with a fascination for the vernacular aesthetic of broken chairs. In the end, it became a metaphor for Chinese society in the 1990′s. I have learned to trust my instincts. If something fascinates me, I follow it.

From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf

Landscape Stories: What's the ideal way to look at your work?
Michael Wolf: With an open mind.

Landscape Stories: Hong Kong is a big presence in your work. What do you find inspirational about the city? How do you feel as an observer?
Michael Wolf: Hong Kong is the city which gave me my career as an artist. I love its diversity and unpredictability. The old and new in such close proximity. Its confucian roots which make it one of the safest cities in the world. Its hard working attitude, its thriftiness. I am eternally grateful. I have the privilege of being an outsider, and therefore I notice more. Someone who grew up in Hong Kong takes the architecture for granted. When I discovered it, it blew my mind. After 17 years of living in Hong Kong, I still feel exhilarated every time I go out and walk the streets. I can still discover something new to me every day. This city fulfills my needs as a visual artist. Hong Kong is also a very efficient place. As an example: in Hong Kong, I can get 30 things done in one day; in Paris, I can get one thing done in 30 days.

From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'Tokyo Compression'. Copyright © Michael Wolf

Landscape Stories: How interested are you in the set up (construction, set, composition...) of your pictures?
Michael Wolf: The composition and aesthetics of my work is of course very important. It's part of what makes content into art. There are two aspects of this: first of all, the style or composition of my photographs, and second, the aesthetics/form of how I present my work, either in printed form, or as an exhibition or installation in a gallery or museum. The most difficult learning process I had to go through when transitioning from editorial work to working in an art context (this was 2003), was that i had to undo 30 years of "visual brainwashing" which occurred while working as a photo journalist for magazines. I had so internalized the way German magazines wanted images to "look" that I automatically framed photographs the way an art director expected it of me. It was impossible for me to frame images in any other manner. A nightmare! since I worked mainly for Stern magazine, I had adopted the Stern magazine style. I always thought in double page spreads, always thought about where the caption would go on the printed image, and about a suitable space for a headline. I would always keep in mind the gutter which would split the photo in half, and compensate for that. (This is a simplified version of the process, and needs more detailed expounding upon – for instance, in the past 10 years, the way images look in magazines has changed dramatically, and a personal style of shooting is much more in demand and respected. This was not so in the editorial photo business in germany during the 1980′s and 90′s). So in order to be accepted in an art context, I needed to get away from an editorial/commercial style. A great help to me for achieving this was the work of the german photographer Michael Schmidt, especially his project "Waffenruhe". This work has its origins in the way Robert Adams and also Lewis Baltz and how many of the New Topographic photographers "look," and not in editorial photography. I studied Michael Schmidt's work very intensely, proceeded to buy a Makina Plauble 6x7cm camera in order to get away from the 35mm small format camera aesthetic, and practiced photographing Hong Kong in the style of Michael Schmidt. The project "Hong Kong Back Door" is the result of that exercise. This also weaned me of my addiction to Stern magazine double page photo thinking. I recognized that there was "another way". From there on I felt much freer and could develop outside of the yoke of editorial photography.
Regarding my books, it is very important that I work together with a publisher who allows me a maximum level of input and control over the layout and sequencing of a book. This is why it is usually a good idea to work together with a small independent publisher, for they have the most freedom, and are willing to take risks. Large publishers are at the mercy of their sales team who often determine what the cover image of the book should be. "A photo of an old man on the cover, this will never sell. Put a young good looking girl on the cover, this always helps sales". The compromises one has to make when dealing with large publishers are often too great and can dilute one's vision.
The presentation of my work, and the form of presentation in exhibitions is also very important. If you study my projects you will notice that i not only exhibit photographs on a wall, but also installations incorporating photographs and objects i have collected. My first such project/exhibition was Sitting in China" (1996-2000). From each trip I took to mainland China, I always brought back one or two small chairs. After several years, I owned app. 75 pieces. Together with the photographs of people "Sitting in China", I would exhibit the real bastard chairs I had brought back from my trips as well.
The next installation project was "The Real Toy Story" (2003), for which I collected 20,000 toys made in China at flea markets in the united states. To these I attached magnets and mounted them on walls covered with metal sheets. Imbedded in this ocean of toys were portraits of toy factory workers which I photographed in factories in China. So here I exhibited the objects, and also images of the people who made the objects.
Another installation project is "100 x 100", a series of photographs of 100 rooms in a Hong Kong housing estate built 1954 (and now demolished). Each room has the same floor plan, and all are the same size: 100 sq. ft. (10 ft, x 10 ft. x 10 ft. x 10 ft.). I will show all 100 photographs in a space which I will have built for myself which is exactly the same size as the room which is in the photograph. Reality shock sets in when the viewer looks at the photos, and then realizes that the room he is standing in is the same size as the photographed room. I will be showing this body of work at the Flowers Gallery in London, opening Nov. 24.
So aesthetics and presentation are very important.

From 'Sitting in China' - installation in Cologne. Copyright © Michael Wolf
From 'The Real Toy Story'- show at the John Batten Gallery. Copyright © Michael Wolf

Landscape Stories: What are you working on right now?
Michael Wolf: At the moment I am working on another project about Hong Kong vernacular. Principle photography is done, at the moment I am editing, and next week I meet with the publisher. Hopefully, the book will come out in May 2012.

Interview by Gianpaolo Arena