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Accidental Art Discovered in Hong Kong’s Alleyways

Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

In Hong Kong, where on average there are around 6,700 people to a single sq. km, personal space is much too valued to go wasted. German photographer Michael Wolf, who has lived in the city for 22 years, has since developed a fascination with the solace and tiny eccentricities of Hong Kong’s back alleys where one can catch a moment’s quiet before stepping out again into the surge of the main street or back into a steamy kitchen. Wolf’s new book entitled Informal Solutions – Observations in Hong Kong Back Alleys, was launched in January this year and contains 1637 colour images, the result of thirteen years back alley exploration.

These multi-functional alleys, though often only a few feet wide, provide a place where workers can take a quick cigarette break between shifts, where laundry is dried, and rubber gloves and fish are hung up to air. Someone has created a hanging garden using a combination of orchids and coat hangers, and mops are propped against the alley walls like pick-up sticks to prevent them from falling. In his images, Wolf reveals the residents’ hidden creativity as they have had to improvise domestic solutions to combat the high-density issue. To the authorities, the alleys are seen as a blemish on the otherwise pristine cityscape and they’re intent on de-cluttering them to clear channels for pedestrians, but to the residents who frequent the alleys, they are nothing less than an extension of their own homes.

With a background in photojournalism, Wolf is accustomed to photographing people but in these photographs he documents only the presence of human activity; simple utilitarian objects have become quirky aesthetic installations left behind by unseen residents until they next emerge into the alley. We talk to Michael Wolf to find out more about this work.

When did you begin this project?

I started this project about 13 years ago. I’m a curious person and I was drawn to the back alleys as they are a kind of no man’s land where the government does not intervene; a natural and undisturbed habitat of the workers.

When photographing in Hong Kong’s back alleys, what specifically grabbed your attention or what were you actively looking out for?

If you look at my latest book, Informal Solutions (published by WE PRESS, 2016), you will see many things which capture my attention. I worked very systematically. In total the book consists of 1647 images and 22 chapters – each a different topic that one can find in the alleys: mops, gloves, carts, strings, gloves, rubber boots, storage solutions etc…

Were all of your photographs taken of scenes you happened to stumble across, or are some scenes set-up?

Nothing has been arranged, I don’t set up any scenes. There are plenty of things to discover as it is. However, when I come with TV crews or journalists they say it doesn’t look my photographs. That’s because I only photograph small details or specific arrangements. I curate the reality so to speak.

For you, what makes Hong Kong so great to photograph?

Hong Kong is my muse, it never ceases to fascinate me. I still feel inspired when I walk the streets, even after 22 years of living here. I never had this intense feeling anywhere else.

Do you have a personal favourite image from this series – and if yes, why?

I don’t have one favourite but I can explain to you how I see the beauty of back alleys through this image (see directly below). You see, this is a gorgeous picture – Hong Kong people never throw anything away, they are very thrifty and can find use in objects that look like they belong in the lap sap. In this image we can find 3 lids of bins, 2 coat hangers, an umbrella and a little chair. All of it is tidy arranged against the fixed structure of the building; its pipes. The background has an interesting texture of squares, dirt and soft skin-type pink. The colors, the shapes and forms look very visually attractive, almost like an unintentional art installation. This image reveals traces of human activity in an indirect and intriguing way. It  somehow contributes to shaping identity of Hong Kong and its people.

Michael Wolf, Informal Solutions #1, Hong Kong 2015

Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

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Michael Wolf, ‘Informal Solutions’, Hong Kong 2003-2016

All images © Michael Wolf

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