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The Transparent CityReview - The Transparent City
by Michael Wolf
Aperture, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Apr 14th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 16)

Michael Wolf (born 1954) is especially known for his photographs of modern China, many of which are on his website.  They show the clashes between the old and new world and the human and the technological.  His photographs of Hong Kong skyscrapers are especially dazzling, being both highly geometrical and almost abstract, and yet at the same time a record of how people live.  Wolf's new book brings a similar approach to Chicago.  The Transparent City is a collection of about 100 digital pictures of the buildings of Chicago, mainly focusing on the downtown skyscrapers.  In some buildings, the glass is opaque, and so the picture is almost entirely a collection of straight lines making rectangle and rhomboid shapes of different colors, and staring at them is like looking at Op Art.  However, in most of the pictures, the windows are either transparent so it is possible to see in, or they are reflective so we see reflected images of sky, sun, and the rest of the city.  Some of the pictures are taken at dusk, with the sun low in the sky radiating the city in a golden glow, giving it a rich warm look.  In some, the reflected images are slightly distorted, and at the same time as seeing them, we can also see into the rooms; this combination has a hallucinogenic feeling, reminiscent of images from the move The Matrix, where our perception of reality is suddenly transformed into a perception of an illusion.  One image of a large section of the city at night makes it look magical and other worldly: each streetlight and car headlight gives a starburst of brightness, and one has an impression of a vast sprawl of technology and humanity combined.  However, the stand-out theme of this collection lies in the glimpses of human life we partially spy through the windows of offices and apartment buildings.  Wolf has highlighted this by expanding small portions of some of these pictures and given them whole pages to themselves; for example, one image shows a highly pixilated picture of a man practicing golf putting in his office.  We might have missed seeing this when looking at the larger image with so many details, and so Wolf draws our attention to it: the small details of human life that normally go unnoticed.  Some of it is voyeuristic, as when we see a man on his own preparing some food in the evening, and on the next page another man, shirtless with magnificent tattoos on his arms, talking on a cell phone, sitting at his cluttered desk, which has a large empty bowl on it, presumably the remains of his dinner.  Some of the pictures suggest the dehumanized city, with each human isolated from all the others, all performing the tasks the tasks they have been assigned.  For the most part, though, the beauty of the images, combined with their complexity and quirkiness, suggest a rich conception of the city with all the life it contains.  This is a fascinating project presenting an unfamiliar view of American life. 

Link: Michael Wolf website

© 2009 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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