Michael Wolf – Tokyo Compression Revisited

A middle-aged man with freckles leans his head forward. His eyes are shut.  We can just make him out him through a spray of moisture on the glass which divides him from us.  A simple frame on our left curves gently around the top of his head, but it’s metal; it gives him no comfort. He looks in pain.  He’s a worry to a viewer, a bit of a frightener.

Further in, another photograph, very similar.  A younger man this time, but his eyes are closed, too.  His brow is furrowed. He looks in pain, just like the other. Here the water is actually running down the glass, and the man seems to be pillowed on a hard industrial square that juts into his cheek. 

These are travellers on the underground railway in Tokyo, and they come from Michael Wolf’s truly magnificent new book Tokyo Compression Revisited, published by Asia One Books in Hong Kong and Peperoni Books in Germany.

Tokyo Compression was a great success for Wolf.  I suppose it has sold out, or perhaps he simply felt the subject could bear a second run. Living in cities is becoming the norm.  I forget the statistics, but I bump into them periodically: people are moving into cities everywhere at a prodigious rate. By the simple expedient of photographing commuters on Tokyo’s notoriously crowded railway system, Wolf has made a kind of Agnus Dei for the urban masses of the world. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem, Lamb of God, who takes on the sins of the world, grant peace unto them, says the Requiem mass, and Wolf has shown us the conditions in which the Tokyo salary men and women take a few moments of peace, sandwiched against the dripping glass, headphones in, eyes shut, counting the stations almost without thinking, in a halfway purgatory between the tensions of home and the stress of the workplace.

The Tokyo commute has been something of a photographic cliché for years.  I know that I don’t need to see any more pictures of those uniformed gentlemen wearing white gloves, whose role is to push the commuters fully in to the trains before the doors close.  So what is it about this series that saves it from the trite?

It’s partly a question of timing, no doubt.  Wolf had probably made every frame here before the recent tsunami and its disastrous consequences, but nevertheless there is just now a real poignancy to a book-length catalogue of long-suffering Japanese.  Japan has really suffered since the economic melt-down, and with the earthquake off the coast of Sendai on March 11th and the damage to the Fukushina Daiichi nuclear reactor that resulted, that suffering shows no sign of any immediate ease.

But it’s not only timing.  Wolf’s are brilliant photographs; it’s as simple as that.  They’re made and cropped and sequenced with skill and care and the deep conviction that meaning will out  – of good photography as of good words. One woman holds her head tilted at an angle of pity over her own hands clutching her mobile phone in an attitude as of prayer.  Does the phone provide us with security, comfort, even underground where it doesn’t work as a phone? Or is it just a technical worry-bead, to clutch and fiddle with when time is passing too slowly? The gesture is coarsely underlined, almost made fun of, by a corporate sticker on the underground train’s glass: a pointing finger, a stab of pain.  That particular commuter seems to have spotted Wolf: certainly she moved just the little bit that she was able to move in the cramped car and shielded her face behind her hands.  Wolf photographed that, too.

Remember that Japanese culture has a special delicacy about bodies, and that for all our long over-exposure to the perpetual teen fantasies of Araki, for the great majority of Japanese people, to be pressed up against strangers must be hellish even beyond the parallel experience in Britain or in France.  Wolf knows this. By way of apology for the intrusion necessary to make the series, he includes on the back cover a picture of a commuter who got his own back on the photographer in the only way he could, raising a middle finger of contempt through the closed glass as his train swept away, refusing to submit to a stranger’s mechanical gaze without protest.

But most of them keep their eyes closed.  Many of them wear those surgical masks which seem half-way between a badge of courtesy (“I won’t give you my germs…”) and a mark of fear (Don’t you dare give me your germs.”).  And always (almost always, to be accurate), that seeping moisture which blurs our view of the commuters even as it makes their ride that little bit less comfortable still.  The earlier book had fewer of these pictures including condensation, and Wolf seems to have recognized how important it is in the second.  It adds an element of blur to the glass screen, and that’s photographically useful. In the tight, tight crops of a book like this, photographed perforce where there is almost no perspective depth, to have an element which masks parts of the field and makes them swim in and out of sharp sight is wonderfully helpful. But it’s much more than that.  As a metaphor, the sweaty condensation on the glass is almost what makes the book: It is as though the commuters had sweated their emotions out into the very atmosphere that they have to breathe.  One can only imagine the thoughts, but Japan is a place where social discipline and cohesion are the norm.  Even though that collective strength must offer great support in times of public difficulty, it is possible to imagine that it takes a strain on individuals in their private lives.  Wolf’s commuters have tremendous dignity in their suffering, but boy! are they suffering.  They sweat fear and shame and longing which gather on the glass walls of their moving cells like tears.

There is a long history of subway pictures, of course, as Michael Wolf is well aware.  Walker Evans’ Many are Called, shot with a secret camera in the 1930s and only published in the mid-1960s, has recently been reissued, and very wonderful it is, too.  Bruce Davidson’s series is well-known, and so are lots of others. Martin Parr made a collection of sleeping Japanese workers once, which must have been made on the subway, although I can’t quite recall that they were. I do remember once doing some work on Robert Doisneau’s comic collaboration with his friend, the cellist Maurice Baquet, and coming across a picture which I liked of Baquet stuck in the train, while his cello remained on the platform.

Perhaps the closest to Michael Wolf’s are the pictures Bill Brandt made on the Tube platforms during the Blitz of London, when they were used as makeshift shelters from the bombing.  In November 1940 the people in Brandt’s photographs could see no end to the miseries of England; in spite of the mythological historiography of the stiff-upper-lip and Cockney jollity in the face of adversity, many of the people in Brandt’s underground pictures will have expected to die that night, or the next, or the one after that. It is permissible to wonder whether the people in Wolf’s recent pictures of Tokyo could not have been feeling something similar.  There seems simply no end to the miseries of Japan.  Certainly, these pictures are profoundly serious, profoundly in earnest.

That is why I think it was a mistake to have included, as a kind of bonus track or appendix at the back of the book, a few pictures of the gadgets on sale to commuters in the gaudy packaging favoured by Japanese fast moving consumer goods’ firms.  It’s all very well finding it funny that some people would seriously buy a kind of blue plastic clothes peg in order to achieve a “Beautiful New Look of Nose”.  I find it funny myself. “Be a Cleopatra’s Nose,” shouts the copy “Indispensable for your Beautiful Nose.  You wouldn’t miss a chance.“   An even sadder gadget is a tightly elasticated mask, designed to stretch the muscles out of their habitual frown, into a joyously positive and go-ahead smile.   These are fun things to collect in Tokyo tube stations – for my own part I buy a particularly foul-tasting dried fish snack, which I solemnly bring back to Europe and give to my friends.  But I find that their inclusion (and in particular the plain element of mockery that their inclusion suggests) adds a hint of nastiness to the book which is wholly absent in the photographs themselves.


Quite a number of the pictures in Tokyo Compression Revisited include hands.  They’re squeezed against the glass for support, or raised as protection between one commuter and another.  They’re tense hands, very sculptural.  They’re also doing hard work hanging on or clutching possessions or (in that one case) giving the finger to the photographer. And that’s really all it is.  Faces, mainly with closed eyes. Hands, gripping or squashed.  A watery, teary surface, and the cold hard glass and metal of subway train windows.  It’s not much to work with.  Yet out of those few spare elements Michael Wolf has made one of the great meditations of recent photography, a meditation on what exactly it costs in humanity when people gather together in cities.






2 thoughts on “Michael Wolf – Tokyo Compression Revisited

  1. Hi,
    Can I have permission to use your photo on my website? It is a non-proft rescuing women from sex-trafficking in Thailand, and the first picture would be a really great addition.

    let me know,

    • Mandi: You absolutely cannot. I am not in a position to grant or deny permission to use. The copyright in Michael Wolf’s photographs belongs (I presume) to the photographer, and as with almost everything which appears here, I illustrate them merely as part of the fair quotation deemed practical in order to write about them. To use these pictures you need to contact the photographer through his agents and apply in proper form. I am naturally glad that you saw them here, but I am absolutely not the right authority to whom you need to address yourself to gain permission to reproduce. But Mr. Wolf has numerous books published, and it will certainly not be difficult to approach his representatives to ask them the same question. What their answer might be I naturally could not say.

Comment Civilly

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s