San Francisco

Michael Wolf

China’s gleaming new skyscrapers have magnetic appeal for Western photographers, who often portray them as striking signs of the country’s massive growth. Michael Wolf is one such photographer, having trained his lens on Hong Kong since 2003, when he began “Architecture of Density,” his ongoing series of pictures depicting seemingly endless vertical columns and staggered grids of windows. The facades are shown at a distance, the thousands of people held within the matrices only suggested. For a related series, “100 x 100,” 2006, however, he photographed Hong Kong residents inside their nearly identical boxlike public-housing units. In these two bodies of work, offering macro and micro views, respectively, the photographer brings out tensions between old and new, growth and decay, in social and architectural structures.

For his new series, “Transparent City,” 2007, Wolf focuses on buildings in Chicago, following his usual voyeuristic impulses but capturing distinctly Western subjects. The twelve photographs that made up this show depict office buildings and upscale condo towers seen at middle and close range. The longer views, such as the golden-hued night-shot Transparent City #46, are appealing in their precisionist integrity, but don’t surpass his earlier work on their own; seen alongside the close-ups of office workers framed in windows, however, they begin to pulse with humanity. Here urban American life is conveyed through solitary labor; while a couple of windows reveal executives gathered around the conference table, most show lone clerks and managers working against the clock, unaware that they are being photographed. The images are almost all shot in the early evening, when work becomes overtime and office buildings fluorescent-lit honeycombs against darkling skies. The project was bankrolled primarily by US Equities, a real estate firm that provided the artist with easy access to buildings, and this corporate backing adds collusive complexity, as the photographs’ subjects are the type of pricy, generically modern hives that white-collar America inhabits and that US Equities presumably sells.

The pictures have a masculine palette of dark browns and steely blue, and many of the windows show single men in mundane evening moments. In the lower right quadrant of Transparent City #28, for example, a shirtless guy with tribal tattoos sits at a wooden table, talking on his cell phone, a dirty bowl and a stack of bills crowding his open laptop. He might be finalizing a contract, or engaging in phone sex. In the composition’s upper left, a floor lamp illuminates a room holding a chair heaped with rumpled clothing (perhaps that of the man below, though it is unclear whether this is the same residence); the other two quadrants are dark. The picture window in Transparent City #88 reveals a living room with a large fl at-screen TV, onto which the artist has digitally laid an image from Rear Window of Jimmy Stewart wielding a telephoto lens. It’s a too-neatly-stated allusion to urban vulnerability that’s hammered in further two floors above, where a tripod for a camera or telescope is set up, though for the time unattended.

The images communicate a familiar sense of modern alienation—the sort that animated Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), that infinitely resourceful filmic choreography of the soulless slapstick of office cubicles and sterile modular apartments, and J. G. Ballard’s savage, dystopian novel High-Rise (1975). Yet Wolf’s project manages to capture contemporary malaise in the mere twinkling of city lights. Photographing the office towers in late 2007, during the early stages of the economic crisis, he may not have caught anyone perched on a ledge, but his pictures, taken in the Midwestern twilight, are nonetheless effectively portentous.

Glen Helfand