Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Review: The Transparent City

The Transparent City by Michael Wolf
aperture, 2009
Hardcover, 112 pages

Michael Wolf's photographs have an obvious and immediate appeal, especially his series focused on the building density and living conditions in China. The flattened elevations of high rises in the Architecture of Density border on the abstract; the repetition of windows and balconies is many times unrelieved, devoid of individual human expression. A much different, but no less beautiful result occurs in his recent Transparent City series shot in Chicago in late 2007, just as the economy started its downward spiral. This last fact is evident in the expressions of people found in Wolf's large-scale photographs, enlarged and pixelated as accompanying details.

The series was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is wrapping up its exhibition at aperture gallery in New York City. The difference between the German-born photographers series in Asia and this one in the American Midwest is found in the architecture. Banal repetition gives way to variety, flat elevations become dynamic perspectival compositions. But it is the proximity of these photos that will attract people the most. Shooting from adjacent rooftops in the winter months (so people would still be in Loop office buildings when it was dark), Wolf is able to put the building occupants on display. This obvious voyeurism is humorously "critiqued" by a couple details: a man in a window apparently giving Wolf the finger, and a TV set displaying Rear Window with Jimmy Stewart pointing his camera and zoom lens towards his neighbors. Geoff Manaugh's essay focuses on these inhabitants, wondering about the potential in the scenes captured. Thankfully he keeps these speculations in check, and his requisite Ballard reference is fitting and insightful. It's a suitable companion to Wolf's stunning new perspective on downtown Chicago.


  1. This book as been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of months now... I find myself drawn into the interiors of the homes in the sky.

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