When Michael Wolf’s wife, Barbara, wanted the family to move to Paris about eight years ago, the photographer wasn’t too excited about the decision. He had moved to Hong Kong in 1994 and traveled around the region creating a number of photo series about life in the sprawling, rapidly modernizing cities. In “Architecture of Density,” he focused on the dizzying size of high-rise apartment buildings in Hong Kong; in “Tokyo Compressions,” he explored the claustrophobic look at life on the Tokyo subways.
“I was used to the excitement and constant change in Asia,” Wolf said about the move. “It was so difficult to find something [in Paris]. The Haussmannian architecture didn’t interest me because it was more of less the same, and photographing people is difficult because of the privacy laws.”
One evening, while visiting a friend, Wolf noticed a small photograph on the wall that contained a view of a rooftop of a building in Paris with three small chimneys. It would end up inspiring his series “Paris Rooftops.”
“I thought if I could just get up there and look at the landscapes of the rooftops, I’m sure it would be interesting,” he said.
Getting up there, however, turned out to be somewhat complicated. Michael and Barbara (an established photo editor) started reaching out to people to see about gaining access to roofs, but found they didn’t know enough people living on the top floors of many of the buildings. They decided that the best bet would be to contact some of the many churches found in Paris.
“You climb up these old rickety ladders, past dead pigeons and trap doors,” Wolf described. “It was really like that movie Hugo with the boy trapped in the clock tower. That’s how I felt, it was magical, you pop open the last trap door and there you are except sometimes when the bells start ringing and you don’t expect it and you’re next to them!”
All of the shooting is done during overcast days since Wolf doesn’t want harsh shadows, preferring to keep a grayer palette. Because the depth of field and subject matter can change drastically from relatively subtle perspectives, Wolf said only about 50 percent of his rooftop visits work with the geometry he’s interested in capturing. He’s even more frugal with the edits he keeps of those views, noting that he currently has only about 14 images he feel are worthy of being shown.
Through introductions via his gallerist and friends, Wolf has since been able to explore different views from people’s apartments, often by simply putting a ladder through a ceiling window and popping it open.