Photographer Michael Wolf passed away at the age of 64 in his home in Cheung Chau, Hong Kong.
Born in Munich, Germany in 1954, Wolf grew up in Berkeley, CA. He studied at UC Berkeley before earning a degree from the Folkwang School in Essen, Germany as a student of Otto Steinert. He moved to Hong Kong in 1994, where he worked for eight years as a contract photographer for Stern magazine, before moving on from photojournalism in 2003 to focus on his personal work. Over time he created a rich body of work exploring the complex reality of urban life around the world.
Michael Wolf first came to international recognition for his work on Hong Kong, one of the world’s densest cities. Through his two long-running series Architecture of Density (2003–14) and Informal Solutions (2003–2019), he developed a multi-layered approach in order to better understand the dynamics of this megacity, stepping back in order to better picture its overwhelming architecture, while also continuously exploring the inner workings of the city, particularly through the extraordinary vernacular culture present in its back alleys.
While Hong Kong remained one of his primary sources of inspiration, over the last decade Michael Wolf had split his time between Asia and Europe. During this period, he undertook bodies of work on major cities around the world, providing a global perspective on the increasingly fraught experience of urban life today. From Chicago where he shot Transparent City (2006) to Tokyo, where he captured the claustrophobia of the subway commuters in Tokyo Compression, to Paris where he began an extensive body of work using Google Street View and shot the series Paris Rooftops, Michael Wolf was fascinated by city life in all its forms.
In recent years Michael Wolf had increasingly experimented with installation in his practice. The immersive installation The Real Toy Story integrates portraits of workers in China’s toy factories into a wall display covered entirely in tens of thousands of plastic toys of all kinds. In exhibitions of his Informal Solutions work, he presented his photographs of Hong Kong’s back alleys alongside the objects he found and collected in these spaces.
The photography book also played an important part in Michael Wolf’s work. Since his first monograph Sitting in China in 2002, Wolf had worked with a number of leading publishers including Steidl and Thames & Hudson. Over the past ten years he had developed a close working relationship with the Berlin-based publisher Hannes Wanderer (1958–2018) of Peperoni Books. Together, they produced 17 books between 2009 and 2018, including the critically acclaimed titles Tokyo Compression and Architecture of Density.
Michael Wolf won first prize in the World Press Photo competition in 2005 and 2010, and received an honorable mention in 2011. In 2010 and 2016 he was nominated and shortlisted for the Prix Pictet photography award.
Wolf's photographs are in the permanent collections at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Brooklyn Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum; St. Louis Museum of Art; Rijksmuseum; Hague Museum of Photography; Museum Folkwang; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, among others. His work was included in the Hong Kong Pavilion at the 2010 Venice Biennale for Architecture and has been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography; Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; Deutsches Architektur Museum; Museum der Arbeit; Bauhaus Museum; Palazzo Reale; and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, among others.
Michael Wolf's first major retrospective, Michael Wolf--Life in Cities premiered in 2017 at the prestigious Rencontres de la Photographie festival in Arles, then travelled to The Hague Museum of Photography, the Fondazione Stelline in Milan and Deichtorhallen Hamburg .The Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop, Germany, opened an exhibition of Wolf's early work from the Bottrop-Ebel 76 series earlier this year. There are numerous monographs published of Michael Wolf's work.
Michael Wolf’s work on life in cities was always driven by a profound concern for the people living in these environments and for the consequences of massive urbanization on contemporary civilization. This commitment and engagement remained central throughout his career, first as a photojournalist and then as an artist.
Michael Wolf is survived by his wife Barbara, son Jasper and sister Kyra Quon.
(Information for this obituary was provided by the Robert Koch Gallery, which was the first gallery to represent Michael Wolf, and did so exclusively for many years.)