Michael Wolf: The Transparent City @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A total of 43 color photographs, 1 video, and 1 sculpture, generally framed in black with no mat, and hung throughout the main gallery space (with two interior dividing walls), against white and dark blue walls. Since neither wall labels nor a handy exhibition checklist was readily available, the usual detailed information about sizes, dates, editions, formats, and even titles was not present; what follows are my assumptions or simply rough guesses. The chromogenic prints came in three general sizes: large (approximately 4×5 feet or reverse), medium (approximately 16×20 or reverse), and small (approximately 8×10 or reverse); the exhibit contains 13 large prints, 15 medium prints, and 13 small prints, intermixed on the walls. The first wall of the exhibit contains a prelude of sorts, two images and a wooden stool from Wolf’s previous Hong Kong project, Architecture of Density. In the middle of the gallery, a video interview runs in a loop, across from a pedestal containing a selection of Wolf’s books. A monograph of this work is available in the shop for $60. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Michael Wolf’s new images of Chicago skyscrapers and the diversity of life that goes on inside them are fundamentally oriented around the idea of telescoping space, of seeing something from a multitude of distances, from far away to right up close, zooming in and out to to see different layers of meaning.
From ten feet away, Wolf’s large nighttime architectural studies look like any number of dense city scenes you’ve seen before; the sky is cropped out, flattening the picture plane into a gridded wallpaper of geometric lines and patterns, created by the formal repetition of the windows and vertical structure of the buildings. While the scale is larger here and the prints are in color, fundamentally, these are modernist visual ideas that go back all the way to the 1920s. The difference comes in the ability to walk right up to the frame and continue to delve into deeper layers of detail. Try that trick with a classic vintage image and you’ll get an eye full of grain and blur; in this case, individual stories resolve themselves in each pane with startling Rear Window voyeurism.
Certainly new technologies play a part in enabling this kind of storytelling, and in some cases, there are echoes of the grand gestures of Andreas Gursky in these pictures. But it is this ability to go from abstraction to documentation in the same frame that is exciting. Up close, the boxes and grids become a warren of lighted offices and apartments, each inhabited by workers and everyday people.
This idea of changing and uncertain distance is amplified by the small, pixelated images of anonymous faces and bodies that are intermixed with the large architectural views. Each one was drawn from one of the big studies and blown up, the pixelation creating another layer of uncertainty; the pictures are indistinct and textured, forcing the viewer to move back and squint to resolve the details. Many of these works were made during the first weeks of the banking crisis, so there are plenty of anxious and worried looks, faces buried in hands, stressed thinking, and subtle gestures of fear. Others have a more pensive and lonely feel, as isolated apartment dwellers watch TV or putter around aimlessly. While I appreciate the impressionistic aspect of the pixels and understand their ability to leave the image more open for interpretation (rather than a strict viewing of truth), I’m not sure that most of the individual close up images can really stand that well on their own; that said, they do provide an important contrast to the larger city shots, and successfully highlight the back and forth changing of scale that is a vital part of Wolf’s artistic approach.
In many ways, these images connect me of the earlier city scenes of Kertesz, where the small details of a cat, or a boy swinging, or a boat on a windowsill suddenly come into view when viewed up close, ultimately changing the feel of the picture. I can imagine a collector having one of these large Wolf architectural views on a big wall, and continually bringing visitors right up to the frame to show them some captivating little detail buried in an office. But while Kertesz‘ vignettes have the light touch of humor and romance, Wolf’s small stories seem more emblematic of the trials and tribulations of these depressing economic times. And so perhaps that will be the ultimate fate of these images: to rest as unexpected artistic documents of this particular point in 21st century history.
Collector’s POV: Since the images in this show are not for sale, no price information was offered. Michael Wolf is represented by Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York (here) and Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco (here). Wolf’s images have only recently begun to find their way into the secondary markets. As such, the pricing history is likely too small to be particularly representative; that said, the few works that have sold in the past few years have ranged between $20000 and $26000, all of the prints being of the largest size from Architecture of Density.
For our specific collection, one of the larger patterned architectural studies would likely be the best fit, even though we would struggle to find a place to hang it.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • MoCP exhibit, 2008 (here)
  • Video interview @Conscientious (here)
  • Features/Reviews: Artforum (here), Lens (here), LensCulture (here)
Michael Wolf: The Transparent City
Through January 21st
547 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Michael Wolf, Aperture Gallery, Bruce Silverstein Gallery, Robert Koch Gallery, Aperture


  1. Anonymous /

    I think it would be a good idea to discuss the digital manipulation aspect of this work. This is a major omission from your review.

    There are many scenes occurring in many of the windows in these photographs.

    For example, there is a tiny window inside a giant photograph that shows Hitchcock's “Rear Window” playing on a flat-screen television in someone's apartment.

    There are many other examples, but what strikes me most is the unreality of the detail included.

    I'm perfectly comfortable with manipulation, and with photographs not representing a true reality.

    I just question the value in manipulating these images to include these details. It feels like a gimmick.

  2. Anonymous /

    I agree with the comment above about the digital manipulation involved in these photographs and how it makes for a clichéd body of work.

    According to the blurbs about the published book, Wolf claims not to manipulate the images.


    Look closely and one can see that this is just not possible. The colors are completely desaturated, other colors are hand painted in and images have been inserted onto television screens that would have been blurry in the capture due to the long exposures necessary to produce this work. Referencing Rear Window is just too obvious.

    Let's not even talk about the ugly prints and the digitalness of them, look closely and you'll see what I mean.

  3. Anonymous /

    These, as well as the Barbara Crane images are actually for sale. Contact someone at Aperture for pricing.

  4. dlkcollection /

    Based on the comments above, I emailed Michael Wolf and he sent back a long, thoughtful reply covering the issues that have been raised. Rather than copy and paste it all here, I'll try to provide a simple summary, with a few of my own thoughts mixed in.

    I think we all know that a long exposure image of a TV will result in a blanked out white screen (think of Sugimoto's theaters). Wolf knew this would happen (given he was shooting at night with long exposures), and was therefore left with the choice of contacting the apartment dwellers and asking them to freeze a frame on their TVs, thereby intervening in their day to day lives (a kind of “director” like manipulation), or to add images back in later via digital manipulation. Which is “better”? Either way, to avoid the blank out, he needed to intervene; in this case, he chose to do post-production editing.

    According to Wolf, he has always been open about inserting the images, and while some might find it too obvious, the one with Rear Window inserted is the most popular in the series (already sold out in all sizes).

    Since the images are not coming from a journalistic or documentary vantage point but are clearly labeled as art, in his mind, the rigid truthfulness of the works is not quite as relevant. Unlike the Edgar Martins situation, Wolf seems to have been open and direct about his small manipulations from the beginning, and thus, they have become a non-issue in terms of the whole argument about truth and photography. In my view, whether they ultimately resonate with viewers is a question of art not truth.

    A few other thoughts, unrelated to this issue: Wolf orginally wanted the pixelated close up images to be printed the same size or larger than the architecural shots, but due to the constraints of the show, this didn't end up happening. If they were larger, viewers would be forced to step back further to see them, and then move forward to see the details of the architectural shots, creating the flow of movement we discussed a bit in the review.

    Also, in response to my concerns about large print size, Wolf reminded me that Aperture has some 20×24 reasonably priced donation prints available, one a composite of two Transparent City images and one from his earlier Hong Kong series.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Pao Houa Her, My grandfather turned into a tiger … and other illusions

Pao Houa Her, My grandfather turned into a tiger … and other illusions

JTF (just the facts): Published by Aperture in 2024 (here). Softcover with dust jacket (17 x 22.5 cm), 124 pages, with 80 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes a conversation between ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter