Arts, Lifestyle & Events Hong Kong

‘An extraordinary eye’: Michael Wolf, famed photographer who shot Hong Kong’s ‘Architecture of Density,’ dies aged 64

Photographer Michael Wolf, who was known for his depiction of Hong Kong’s urban life, has passed away in his home on Cheung Chau Island. He was 64.

Wolf died on Wednesday night in his sleep at his Cheung Chau apartment, according to his representatives at Blue Lotus Gallery. His death was first announced by the Hague Museum of Photography and confirmed on Friday by the gallery. Wolf is survived by his wife Barbara and son Jasper.

Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf. Photo: 一条 screenshot, via YouTube.

Wolf was born in Munich, Germany in 1954, and was raised in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He attended college at the University of California, Berkeley and later received a degree in visual communication from the University of Essen.

See also: Hong Kong’s disappearing corner houses captured by the late Michael Wolf

He moved to Hong Kong in 1994 while working as a photojournalist for Stern magazine, and started working under his own name from 2002 onwards.

Best known locally for his photography series “Architecture of Density,” Wolf depicted residential blocks as dense patterns with a sense of claustrophobia. He described his work as focusing on “life in mega-cities,” which also included photographs of old neighbourhoods.

michael wolf architecture of density

A photo from the series Architecture of Density. Photo: Michael Wolf.

“A lot of people know me by now and my photos make them aware of their own identity and culture. [It’s] a culture which should be preserved,” Wolf said of his work in a 2016 interview.

“What I learnt from Michael was that it takes an extraordinary eye to see the ordinary, no matter how small or strange that is,” local artist Kacey Wong told HKFP on Friday. “Once captured, it is ordinary no more. A quick and calm foreign eye, with a critical mindset that is always observing and detecting, noticing all those strange little pictures that make up the big picture of Hong Kong.”

“Thank you Michael, a true HongKonger you are in my book – thank you for letting us see the Extraordinary Hong Kong,” he added.

Local artist Kacey Wong remembers Michael Wolf - click to view
My connection with Michael goes way back when he was here Hong Kong as a reporter. As his photography work started developing, we even had group exhibitions together and got to know each other quite well. As his career started picking up, we didn’t see each other that much but still kept in touch via Instagram – he always liked my strange photos, especially my one-eyed cat. Quick in the brain and in his sense of humour, with criticality to converse with, always looking at issues with interesting insights. He told me he used to work as a photographer shooting high school student’s graduation photographs in order to survive – how boring could that have been? Maybe this experience provided the foundation for him to observe the ordinary carefully?

One time, I purchased a large work of his – a photograph shows a wire fence with some disposable cups stuck onto it, a detail of an urban street corner which I found very Hong Kong. People want to throw away their garbage but don’t want to dump it on the street, so they just pushed it into the holes of the wire fence. I also collected a very small photograph of his, showing some roasted ducks being hung on a balcony with a housing estate in the background – that photo is still hung on my kitchen door. He later told me I was the first Hong Kong person who actually bought his artwork – I was so shocked to hear that, since he was so famous already in my mind. He said museums around the world collected his photography work, but not the museums in Hong Kong for some strange reason. I tried to comfort him by saying that seeing one’s own culture is difficult, it is like a blindspot – maybe the museums think it is nothing new since these urban landscapes are so “ordinary” on every street corner. As Michael’s reputation grew, the local museums did finally collect his work – I was very happy for him.

What I learnt from Michael was that it takes an extraordinary eye to see the ordinary, no matter how small or strange that is. Once captured, it is ordinary no more. A quick and calm foreign eye, with a critical mindset that is always observing and detecting, noticing all those strange little pictures that make up the big picture of Hong Kong. Thank you Michael, a true HongKonger you are in my book – thank you for letting us see the Extraordinary Hong Kong.

Wolf won the top prize from the World Press Photo Awards in 2005 and 2010, among other accolades.

See also: Hong Kong’s mind-boggling density showcased in the late Michael Wolf’s classic photo series

Sarah Greene, director of Blue Lotus Gallery, said Wolf had a deep affinity for Hong Kong.

“His main body of work depicts life in cities with work made in Tokyo, Chicago and Paris. Yet his main muse was Hong Kong. Hong Kong was his favourite city which kept inspiring him, zooming out on the beehive with his iconic work ‘architecture of density’ and zooming into the veins of the city exploring the vernacular beauty of the back alleys,” Greene told HKFP.

“His home in Cheung Chau was the inspiration for his last book project ‘Cheung Chau Sunrises’. [He would] look forward waking up to see the next sun rise and be curious about what would unfold in front of him. Every day the view was the same but yet it was totally different,” she added.

Michael Wolf's Architecture of Density

Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density. Courtesy: Blue Lotus Gallery.

“This was Michael in a nutshell, curious about life, art and photography, a sensitive observer who perceived the world like no other.”

His work on China, including a portrait series of the country’s factory workers, also gained widespread acclaim.

Embed from Getty Images

His other works include more than 30 photobooks, including Inside/Outside (2009), Real Fake Art (2011), Tokyo Compression (2010), Transparent City (2008), Hong Kong: Front Door/Back Door (2005), and Sitting in China (2002).

Additional Reporting: Tom Grundy. 

Correction (20:04): In its earlier statement, Blue Lotus Gallery mistakenly said Wolf died on Tuesday night. Wolf passed away on Wednesday night at the age of 64.

'An extraordinary eye': Michael Wolf, famed photographer who shot Hong Kong's 'Architecture of Density,' dies aged 64