Well-known for his ongoing documentation of Hong Kong and other major metropolises, the German photographer captures the daily crush of bodies caught in Tokyo’s infamously-congested subway cars, portraying an inhuman discomfort which is as alienating as it is confronting.

Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression #05, 2010. Courtesy Michael Wolf and Flowers Gallery

Michael Wolf is recognized for his large-format photographs depicting the vast architectural structures of megacities across the globe. While the scale of his focus shifts in Tokyo Compression, from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, his commitment in exploring the relationship between the individual and the metropolis remains ever-present. Depicting the daily torment of Tokyo’s commuters, the series offers a haunting documentation of the isolating experience of participating in the contemporary city.

The politics of looking, and in particular looking upon others’ suffering, sits at the core of Wolf’s candid photographic series. The work prompts not only a reflection on the discomfort before us, but also a self-reflection on our own position as spectator. With city-dwellers framed in states of claustrophobic torment, their anguished faces crushed against the glass pane, the dividing window acts as a literal reinforcement of the commuters’ “otherness”, an ever-present reminder that we are free and they—albeit temporarily—are not. It is a dynamic that is disquietingly symbiotic—our spectatorship depends on their objectification, our agency on their entrapment. We therefore encounter their confinement with an uncomfortable detachment, the commuters representing a condition which is real yet simultaneously distant.

This tension is characteristic of the inherently-dualistic nature of Tokyo Compression, with another arising through the work’s alternation between the earthly and the evanescent. The train’s urban materiality—comprised of glass, steel and bodies all compressed into one mass—contrasts with the precipitating condensation which obscures the bodies beyond the window. In this way, the conflict between what is real and what is fleeting is heightened. With commuters often photographed in states of internal retreat, eyes-closed and headphones-on as if attempting to escape their suffocating situation and worldly constraints, the images regularly slip into a realm of drowsiness and dream.

Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression #17, 2010. Courtesy Michael Wolf and Flowers Gallery

“What is most striking is the tension between the ferocity of this environment and the quietude by which it is framed… a silence that is almost deafening”

Despite these moments of trance, Wolf’s work repeatedly gravitates towards the oppressive immediacy of the underground. Composed entirely of consecutive close-ups, the repetitious nature of the work parallels the high-speed and relentless nature of the underground’s rhythm, train after train, minute after minute. Perhaps what is most striking of all is the tension between the ferocity of this environment and the quietude by which it is framed… a silence that is almost deafening.

By spectating these writhing commuters, helplessly entrapped in an airless inferno, we are made to consider the ways in which the ever-expanding metropolis exacerbates the gulf between individual and society, and freedom and submission. Tokyo Compression depicts the anguishes of being amidst the backdrop of an increasingly urbanized, and ultimately anonymized, world. It serves as a visual manifestation of the individual’s liminal experience within the disorientating contemporary megacity. Bound in an undefined and paralyzing state of in-betweenness, the commuters are left to reflect on not only their spatial condition, but their humanity. Wolf’s series suggests the unsettling prospect that his subjects have become estranged from their very selves.

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