JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Buchkunst Berlin (here). Hardcover with tipped-in image, 15.7×21 cm, 80 pages, with 60 color reproductions. Aside from a short quote by the artist, there are no texts or essays included. Design by Hannes Wanderer, Ana Druga, and Thomas Gust. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Part of the reason iconic cities develop and retain their particular personalities is that they have able photographers who consistently document their wonders and peculiarities. In the case of contemporary Hong Kong, the German photographer Michael Wolf has been an attentive and devoted chronicler. Over the better part of two decades, Wolf has pointed his camera at the unique Chinese city, documenting not only the geometric grandeur of its many skyscrapers and apartment blocks but the visual eccentricities of its crowded streets and back alleys. In recent years, Wolf has churned out a series of small photobooks, each gathering together images of common subject matter discovered in Hong Kong, from improvised seating arrangements and discarded umbrellas to abandoned plants and found sculptural assemblages. These books attest to Wolf’s voracious eye for overlooked urban detail, and his affection for the human quirks of his adopted city.
Hong Kong Lost Laundry is the final volume in the series, published right before Wolf’s death in 2019, and it carries on with the thematic approach and straightforward design elements used in the prior books. Its cover is wrapped in bright pink cloth, in a tone that matches perfectly the tipped in image of an abandoned pink washcloth hanging from a black pipe. It is a friendly, intimately sized photobook, with lively reproductions in varying sizes inside that belie the formality of Wolf’s compositions.
When we think about street photography, we usually focus on the serendipitous (and often cleverly framed) arrangements of people in the city, but Wolf’s photographs invert that foundation assumption. His pictures are instead indirect – they tell unexpected and found visual stories, but with human-associated objects (not the people themselves) as their protagonists. Given Hong Kong’s extreme population density, high rise buildings house literally millions of people, and those residents typically hang their laundry to dry outside on their balconies and out their windows. When the wind blows (particularly during storms and typhoons), that laundry tumbles down from above, getting caught on pipes, air conditioners, electrical wires, barbed wire, scaffolding, and various signage in the streets and alleys below, providing Wolf with the random circumstances that enable his pictures.
It’s safe to say that we might assume that images of lost laundry wouldn’t amount to much, but Wolf’s photographs discover ordered sculptural elegance in these cast offs. Often Wolf uses the clothing as a splash of color or contrast in relation to its surroundings, like a bright pocket square against a well tailored blue suit: a green t-shirt enlivens a dense network of grey piping; a pair of orange shorts is caught on the angled bracing of window awnings; a yellow shirt dangles from pipes with a soft pink tint; and a dark pink shirt hangs between bold signage in red and yellow. When a hanger comes along for the ride, the clothing forms get even more elaborately draped: a faded red shirt hangs upside down near an air conditioner; a blue shirt dangles off the corner of a hanger caught underneath a white and red sign; a purple shirt twists into curves and folds against a tiled wall; and a sweatshirt hovers in the air with its arms outstretched. And to protect the modesty of those who have lost their panties, Wolf has housed his handful of found underwear images between two pastel yellow sheets that bookend the images in the visual flow.
Toward the end of the photobook, Wolf introduces a series of images that step back from tightly cropped close ups to consider laundry seen hanging against the regular geometric forms of apartment blocks. In these images, the laundry acts like an impressionistic sprinkle of color here and there atop the regular patterns of squared off windows and balconies. In some cases, the buildings themselves are painted or tiled in bright colors, creating striping effects that Wolf then uses as contrast when photographing the clothing. The laundry humanizes and interrupts the rigid regularity of the apartments, adding thrumming life to the aloof structures.
Like many of the books in this series, Hong Kong Lost Laundry takes a blindingly mundane and humble subject and makes it captivating. Wolf’s success lies in making the subject his own – his eye is distinctive, and every one of these photographs has his visual signature. When he isolates a fallen garment, he not only sees its lines and contours, but grounds it in the patterns and rhythms of its surroundings; when he takes in a broader scene, he abstracts it to its geometric structure, simplifying a chaotic world into organized lines of architecture. At first glance, these images might seem ordinary, but with time spent, each one reveals a surprising degree of compositional complexity and nuance. It’s like Wolf has discovered an entire world hiding in plain sight, the grace (and muted comedy) of a hanging tshirt only visible to those who can appreciate its unlikely charms.
Collector’s POV: Michael Wolf is represented in New York by Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here) and in San Francisco by Robert Koch Gallery (here), among others around the world. A few of Wolf’s prints have recently entered the secondary markets, with prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $48000.