Issue #134  10/5/2007
Timely China Images From Michael Wolf

By Matt Damsker


Photographs by Michael Wolf. Text by Minna Valjakka. 2007, Vapriikki Publishers, Tampere, Finland. 92 pages; approximately 100 color plates; ISBN No. 978-951-609-322-5. For more information: http://www.tampere.fi/vapriikki .

This fine catalogue is keyed to a retrospective of photographer Michael Wolf's work in China--an ongoing project begun in 1994, when he began living there--which continues through January 6, 2008, at Finland's Tampere Museums. It seems an especially timely body of work now that China's rampant economic growth has focused the world on everything from its environmental pollution problems to manufacturing lapses that have resulted in the discovery of lead paint and other dangers in its exported toys.

Indeed, Wolf's China photographs include a portfolio of remarkable China toy images that suit his saturated color technique, with stunning montages that depict the drudgery of mass toy production and exhausted factory workers amidst a multi-color ocean of innumerable plastic toys. As Minna Valjakka's text points out, mainland China is the world's biggest toy exporter by a wide margin, but the retail price of one high-quality toy in the western market is often more than six months' salary for a Chinese toy factory worker.

Thus, Wolf's vision (he was born in Munich, Germany and studied at the University of California in Berkeley and with Otto Steinert at the University of Essen) yields a sociological study of a vast culture that is at once in and out of balance with the rest of the modern world. Wolf captures images of China's youth in trendy Western dress, or its elderly in Maoist peasant garb, all in an urban context that ranges from the bleak, hardscrabble landscapes of old neighborhoods to the futuristic backdrops of cities like Shanghai.

The textures of Chinese life are made vivid in his rich color work, and the formality of his approach--mostly full-frontal portraits of his subjects in their milieu--projects a strong sense of personality and place. But Wolf also courts the repetitive abstraction of China's massive apartment building facades, and brings a rich pop irony to a series of photographs of China's many art copyists, who create decent reproductions of canonical Western artworks--by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Gerhard Richter--and who pose for Wolf with their handiwork in the forlorn streets. This unique exhibition also features a great collection of Chinese propaganda posters from the Mao era, and their candy colors and utopian sentimentality complement the high-keyed hues of Wolf's realism.

BRIEFLY NOTED: Those with a passion for photography's history will want to read Fred Bremner's "My Forty Years in India," originally a privately published memoir for family and friends by an important 19th-century photographer. Bremner was born in Scotland and went to India in 1882, establishing his own studio and documenting the cultural highs and lows of the subcontinent during the heyday of the British Raj. Pagoda Tree Press has reprinted Bremner's chatty little book (70 pages, in paperback) for the first time, and it's a charming mixture of everyday observation and acknowledgement of India's vast majesty (for information: http://www.pagodatreepress.com , or email Hugh Raynor at hughrayner@pagaodapress.com ).

Then there's a sprawling compilation of writings about photography by the medium's biggest 20th-century names--from Berenice Abbott to Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, John Szarkowski, Garry Winogrand and virtually every important personage in between--and yet "The Education of a Photographer" (co-published by the School of Visual Arts and Allworth Press; paperback, $19.95, http://www.allworth.com ) is something of a hodge-podge of previously published bits and pieces, interviews and maxims that fails to chart a coherent course. Co-editors Charles H. Traub, Adam B. Bell, and Steven Heller are well-credentialed New York-based artists and academics, but this collection is only suited for casual spot-reading or as curriculum fodder. And the absence of an excerpt from Susan Sontag's seminal essay, "On Photography"--arguably the most important intellectual deconstruction of the medium--is a glaring omission (though Sontag is briefly cited a few times).

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)