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It began with a midlife crisis, 20 years ago. At 39, German photojournalist Michael Wolf had become bored with working for magazines that he felt recycled the same story ideas about a Europe that had become banal and homogeneous. He needed a radical change, so he moved his family to Hong Kong. In the mid-1990s China was still an emerging enigma and a fertile subject for his camera. “China was a black hole then," says Wolf, "and you could still explore and see things no one else had ever really seen. It was a real adventure.”
Wolf had studied in Essen when the nearby Düsseldorf School (Thomas Struth, Andreas Skursky, Candida Höfer, etc) was at its peak. He also came under the influence of Joseph Beuys (“He had a real power, but it wasn’t the object, it was the story”) and William Eggleston (“I realized it was just the ordinary, which he elevated into something magical”) At first, Wolf used Hong Kong only as a base from which to shoot China, both for magazine features and, as his fascinations evolved into project concepts, for himself as an artist. That earlier work included a series inspired by his love for August Sander’s classic taxonomy of professional types in 1920s Germany. As he travelled widely around China he would shoot whomever looked interesting, but with a focus on their attire and body language. Eventually, though, Wolf discovered the rich vernacular textures and subtle social sign systems of Hong Kong itself and began to develop series that sought to decode the city visually. Through his expat eyes, the city was revealed as a place of surprising beauty, but also a dense hive of downsized lives.
Michael Wolf's latest series, shot in Paris, will be shown at the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco, July 10 through August 30.