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  • May 03, 2019

Obituary: Michael Wolf (1954–2019)

MICHAEL WOLF passed away on April 24 at the age of 64. Copyright Gerrit Schreurs. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London.

On April 24, German photojournalist Michael Wolf, famous for documenting Hong Kong’s dense architecture and its people, passed away in his sleep at his home on Cheung Chau island, aged 64. His gallery representative Sarah Greene, of Hong Kong's Blue Lotus Gallery, and his studio manager Pierfrancesco Celada announced his death.

Born in 1954 in Munich, Germany, Wolf grew up in Europe and North America. He briefly attended the North Toronto Collegiate Institute and University of California, Berkeley before completing a degree in visual communications at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. There, he studied under the self-taught photographer Otto Steinert. In 1994, Wolf moved to Hong Kong as a contract photographer for Stern magazine.

In 2003, Wolf began collecting toys from second-hand stores and flea markets across the California coast that were “made in China,” amassing almost 20,000 of them. He fixed these toys onto a wall to create an installation that also features photographs of toy factory workers in China and titled the work The Real Toy Story (2004). The project earned him the World Press Photo Award in 2005. In 2010, he won the same award for the second time for his “Tokyo Compression” (2010) photograph series, portraying the faces of salarymen and women on their subway commute to work during rush hour, most with their features pressed up against the glass. Greene said that the significance of his work was highlighted by his “intensity,” often achieved through his “obsessive collecting” and his desire to photograph the same subjects over and over again until he felt the project was complete. Wolf often worked on his photographic projects for years before publishing them in his books.

Wolf photographed many cities, but he is perhaps best known for his images of Hong Kong, where he treats vertical tower blocks and public housing as patterns or abstractions, such as in “Architecture of Density” (2003–2014) which depicts a claustrophobic cityscape. He was acutely sensitive to his environment, paying special attention to in-between spaces. Explaining his relationship with the city, he has said: “The globe of the world turned in my head, and I stopped at many places and none of them somehow resonated. And at the very end I stopped in Hong Kong and everything in me said, ‘Yes.’” His final series,“Cheung Chau Sunrises” (2017–19), is collected in a photobook published by Blue Lotus Gallery in February.

Pamela Wong is assistant editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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