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Book Review: Small God, Big City


Book Review Small God, Big City By Michael Wolf Reviewed by George Slade I doubt that Garry Winogrand would have tolerated being described as a typologist. And I would not generally use the label for him. But when it came to women, particularly his "Women Are Beautiful" project, I sense that part of what drove Winogrand was a notion of collecting variations on a theme, and an ongoing question about subject matter and picture making. That is, how small could an object be within a frame and still function as the main signifier of that photograph?
Small God, Big City. Photographs by Michael Wolf.
Peperoni Books, 2013.
 
Small God, Big City
Reviewed by George Slade

Small God, Big City
Photographs by Michael Wolf
Peperoni Books, 2013. Hardbound. 124 pp., illustrated throughout, 7-1/2x11".


I doubt that Garry Winogrand would have tolerated being described as a typologist. And I would not generally use the label for him. But when it came to women, particularly his "Women Are Beautiful" project, I sense that part of what drove Winogrand was a notion of collecting variations on a theme, and an ongoing question about subject matter and picture making. That is, how small could an object be within a frame and still function as the main signifier of that photograph?

Michael Wolf emulates this probing interest in his explorations of urban density. In Hong Kong Inside Outside (which I reviewed for photo-eye in April 2011) and other projects, he has collected apartment interiors, apartment building facades, commuters mashed against subway windows, and "bastard" chairs.

In this new volume his focus turns to public shrines honoring the Earth God, a deity of fairly pedestrian standing—knee-high, and seldom taller than a meter, to judge from the photographs. The Winogrand comparison operates in Wolf's frames, which situate the shrines at varying distances from the lens, thereby insuring that the sacred is seen in its secular context. Crowded, narrow passages probably create another kind of exigency determining the scale of the depicted shrines.

Small God, Big City, by Michael Wolf. Published by Peperoni Books, 2013.

Actually, the ethnographic and anthropological aspects of the Earth God, considered in an introductory essay by Lee Ho Yin and Lynne D. DiStefano, enhance a visual investigation that fascinates on its own terms. To grasp this figure's function and his position among Chinese household gods is to derive measurable benefit from the information accumulated in the photographs. In their abundant variations on a theme of supplication, the photographs beg for and gain from explanation.

Small God, Big City, by Michael Wolf. Published by Peperoni Books, 2013.
Small God, Big City, by Michael Wolf. Published by Peperoni Books, 2013.

While I mentioned Winogrand's theory of significant occupancy above, there is also a Lee Friedlander/Roger Mertin/Alec Soth corollary at work. That is, certain photographers pursue things obliquely, over time, rarely going out solely to gather iterations of one idea. Think monuments or graffiti, basketball hoops or the color blue, and mattresses or caves for the three mentioned above. A fascination abides, and every encounter with the object of interest is like finding a keyword in the three-dimensional hard drive of daily life. The spotlight shines, a capture is made, and the collector has new evidence for the catalogue.

Small God, Big City, by Michael Wolf. Published by Peperoni Books, 2013.

Wolf seems determined to pursue a long-term study of urban life in this fashion. It's a good strategy, a smart way to navigate a complex environment. Pay attention, you may learn something.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

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