The Flowers Gallery on Kingsland Road in London is always a sure bet. It is my oasis after a morning spent shooting an exciting stream of street art in the Hoxton area. Here, it is time to float, to relax the analytical brain, to stop the drill of assessing artistic merit and simply enjoy whatever their latest professionally curated show has in store. On offer this time were b&w silver gelatine prints from the 1970s taken by photographer Michael Wolf.
Let’s face it, photography is like Cinderella’s evil sister. She is fast and revealing, a veritable tattletale, excessively direct and sometimes too candid for comfort. She can present as demure as Jackie-O, as compelling as an Alexander McQueen model or as gritty as an exorcism. Mr. Wolf is more than capable of pulling any or all of them off, and the overall impact is that his photographs do not just deliver a three-word sentence, they herald a sweeping Leo Tolstoy novel.
Admittedly, after a long day of carrying a heavy camera bag, the prospect of climbing more stairs just to see 14 (50 x 60 cm) prints from the mid 1970s didn’t exactly fire my imagination. But. That was until I came eye-to-eye with the first of Michael Wolf’s heart-wrenching volleys. Back to full alert.
My Wolf indoctrination began with Print #16. It was an astutely lit image of an obviously poor, but stylish, woman dressed-down in a factory uniform. She was fully kitted out in 1970s era make-up and beehive hairdo. Unfortunately, she looks so completely out of place working on her assembly line. Nothing about her belonged where she found herself. It is also evident that the fumes of her resignation to this fate have not yet fully dampened her optimism. Viewers suffer an involuntary gasp and experience a heartfelt empathy for her situation. It also fires a secret fear that “there, but for the grace of God, go I”.
In print #15, Michael Wolf deliberately understates the horror of mining with his unnerving image of a coal miner at work. This incredibly lit photograph of a worker completely covered in coal dust echoes the horrors of Émile Zola’s tragic novel “Germinal”. The worker’s posture implies a casual acceptance of his situation, while the viewer struggles to deal with the apparent normalcy of ‘an any-man’s’ life’, in a ‘day-to-day hell’.
But it is print #18 – where Wolf sublimely witnesses the unavoidable treadmill of life moving towards death, that undid me. This tender image of an ageing woman lovingly tending to an even older woman dying in her bed under the protective image of Jesus and his lamb, instantly froze me to the core. Her almost skeletal remnants, dwarfed by bed clothes, tore tears from my eyes. This haunting image with its powerful control of eye movement, perfectly mirrored both the visual and spiritual essence of the recent passing of my own mother. Masterfully underplayed, there was not one more detail needed to portray that moment.
Alone, these three images are perfect examples of the power of photography, Cinderella’s evil sister. Wolf uses her to enslave the heart via the eye.
I have to return to the Flowers Gallery to take on the remaining 11 slices-of-life images that emerged from a small coal mining village located in the Ruhr District of Germany in 1976. But maybe I should do it three at a time.
Too brief a bio:
Michael Wolf was born in Munich and currently lives between Hong Kong and Paris. His work has been exhibited and held in permanent collections too numerous to mention (see attached link).
The 14 photographs on exhibit at the Flowers Gallery entitled BOTTROP-EBEL 76 are drawn from his very first photographic series. There is a total of 238 black and white and 12 colour prints from the series held in the Ruhr Museum in the Essen photography archive. An exhibition of his work is expected to take place later this year at the Deichtorhallen, Internationale Kunst und Fotografie, Hamburg.
To view more of his work try this link.photomichaelwolf.com/