Transparent City

Michael Wolf

From Nick Paumgarten’s article “The Death of Kings,” a somewhat more meditative take on the financial meltdown:

It can be startling to discover how many offices in Manhattan have spectacular views. The first time you gain admission to an aerie in some other blue-chip tower and look out, you think that this particular office must be the finest in town, the seat of secret power, the heart of the plot. But the city is full of them. It’s one of the things about tall buildings: you can see a lot. The takeoffs and landings at the airports, the shipping lanes, the humans below reduced to units: it is easy to begin to think abstractly about the armature of empire. Sitting up there and talking for hours about pools of securitized debt, and seeing them depicted on dryboards, divided into tranches, you can find yourself viewing the buildings out the window as manifestations of that debt – the conversion of financial cunning into steel, brick, and glass.

I found myself inadvertantly thinking about how Michael Wolf’s Transparent City photos, some of which I saw at the beginning of the year, are more landscape than architectural photography. For many of us, field and stream have been replace in daily vision by monolithic stone, steel and glass. In photo after photo, geometric abstraction resolves into the matter of people’s lives. The grid of building structure divides each occupant from another, and each resides alone in his box, staring at computers and televisions.

Some of Wolf’s photographs are similar to Thomas Kneubuhler‘s work, but I get a much stronger whiff of compartmentalization from Wolf. Work exists in one box and private life in another. Every day most of us engage in a mass exodus from our homes to our workplaces and we do it again in reverse at the end of the day. Both fall visually into the mold of high rise geometry, and there is an implied parallel – we work in a small cube and we live in a slightly larger one. Swap in a couch for a desk chair and a TV for a computer monitor, and, from a distance, the scenes are pretty similar. Yet there’s something endearing about all the individual piles of detritus each person creates for himself placed side by side in large human colonies, but the dominant form of the grid does give the whole project a rigid feel.

These photos are not well represented by web viewing. They should be seen as large prints that you lean into to pick out little details, but I don’t find the grand scale of the structures dehumanizing or anonymizing. In fact, I find the act of honing in on one small detail while the rest of the print fills your peripheral vision more personal and engaging than taking in frames and prints as a whole. If he is showing near you, it’s a show that’s definitely worth seeing in person.


~ by Jin on June 8, 2009.

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