Michael Wolf and Philipa Lorca diCorcia are two artists and photographers whose work confronts and interrogates people’s expectations of privacy, coupled with human voyeuristic tendencies. In the series Transparent City (2008) Wolf displays beautiful images of skyscrapers in Chicago, juxtaposed with selected grainy blown up details from those images. Whilst in Heads (2000-2001), diCorcia has captured candid images of individuals as they pass through Times Square.
Wolf obtained a degree in Visual Communication, and worked for many years in Germany and Hong Kong as a photojournalist, before seeking a new direction with his own artistic projects. He admits that his photography satisfies his inherent curiosity about other people’s lives - he discusses this in Peeping, a profile piece and interview by FOAM.
This Chicago project, follows his previous body of work, Architecture of Density, which was shot in Hong Kong - and where Wolf established a particularly graphic representation of buildings without sky or ground. The result is an almost scale-less impression, where the buildings feel like they could go on forever. Wolf has noted that Chicago has more architectural variety, and is also more layered and geometric, with flat surfaces compared to Hong Kong (he discusses this in his talk at Aperture), and this lends a slightly different abstract graphic quality to this series.
Interestingly, Wolf notes that the images in The Transparent City could only have been shot in Chicago. As a result of the zoning, there is space between the buildings in a way, that for example, doesn’t exist in New York. He also speculates on how decisions about planning and the built environment influence the kind of photographs which can exist now, and into the future (1). Geoff Manaugh's essay in The Transparent City further draws comparison between Wolf’s photographs and JG Ballard’s novel High-Rise - speculating how a building can change the inhabitant psychologically and behaviourally. The images also create an interesting relationship between the inhabitants on different floors - highlighting in the process the very lack of relationship that exists between occupants who are spatially close-by, but often almost unknown to each other.
It was the following blown-up section of an image, with a man gesturing back to the camera, which prompted Wolf to investigate his images further, and search out other fragments to enlarge. As he says, it was a moment of clarity that the subjects could be looking back too, as well as a realisation that there was another whole world of detail in each of the facade shots initially shot. Perhaps this speaks as much about the perceived invisibility that the photographer often feels they have in the world - somehow external to it - as much as a premonition of the kind of reaction the work might provoke, or recognition of the response the subjects who, if they realised they were being photographed, might have. Wolf was also inspired to take his telephoto lens and where possible shoot high definition details of the goings-on inside the buildings too.
Ultimately though, most of the blown-up fragments and the details Wolf features are not of anyone ‘looking back’, but serve to reinforce the position that we are looking in. We are viewing people captured unawares in private moments - even if they do turn out to be far less exciting than Wolf initially imagined they’d be. In fact he was struck by the sheer banality of what he saw.
There is an obvious voyeuristic element to the work, and the issues of privacy and the border between public and private space is interrogated. How the matter of privacy is valued, or eroded; its flexibility and how expectations adapt in the face of increased density say something about the society in which they occur in. Wolf, having lived in Hong Kong for years witnessed how a blurring of public-private space occurs, with private lives spilling out of windows and into streets - a classic demonstration of Walter Benjamin’s notion of porosity. Whilst in Chicago Wolf stares directly into private space to capture the traces of the human detail he seeks. The title of the series contrasting the glassed visibility of the Chicago buildings with the visual impenetrability of the Hong Kong buildings.
To shoot Heads diCorcia set up a strobe light which he could trigger from a distance to capture any subject he wished as they strayed into the target area of the photographic trap he laid in the middle of Times Square. The result is pristine captures of mostly isolated people against a darkened background. Apparently he took thousands of images, of which only around 20 made the cut for the exhibition.
It was a very conscious decision for diCorcia not talk to the people he photographed, and therefore he never obtained their permission to use the images he took. The powerful images are left to simply stand on their own.
The Transparent City is somewhat a meditation on how buildings make a place, and a peek into how people respond to and exist within that space. In contrast Heads casts its gaze on the public demeanor, and simultaneously exposes the contradictions of trying to maintain privacy whilst stepping out into the public realm.
Both artists’ work has attracted legal attention, and in the case of diCorcia it went to court, where it was dismissed on a technicality and the legal implications his work stirred were never truly tested. Their work stands to highlight the issue of privacy in a world where virtually everyone has their image captured by countless security devices every single time they leave home. The controversy the work incites is not surprising, and forms a necessary critique on privacy and the public realm, including the role that the photographic medium itself has in the debate.
1. Discussed in Geoff Manaugh, “The Transparent City”, in Wolf, M. Michael Wolf: The Transparent City (New York: Aperture, 2008).