Thursday, March 13, 2008

Michael Schmidt

My second post on this blog was a fairly brief one about Berlin photographer Michael Schmidt. It's quite hard to find a lot of information about Schmidt online and the same goes for his pictures - and yet his influence on many contemporary photographers is significant - among his pupils are Andreas Gursky and Ulrich Gorlich - and his working colleagues include Lewis Baltz, William Eggleston, Paul Graham and Robert Adams. Basically, you need to get the books or go to the shows.

Then other day I saw a refence to a rare N. American exhibition (he has actually had two solo shows at MoMA in 1988 and 1996) of his work at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in NY - which also has a small selection of pictures online.

"Schmidt arrived at a strategy of disseminating his work early on. He photographs large quantities of images without a specific project in mind. These images are then organized into groups with socially evocative titles, such as Ausländische Mitbürger (Foreign Co-citizens, 1973) or Berlin, Stadtbilder (Berlin, Images of the City, 1976-80). He exhibits the work in clusters or groupings intended to draw relationships among the images, often in a public context, and then, circumstances permitting, publishes a book of the images. Unlike many artist monographs, Schmidt’s books are not intended to catalog discrete images but rather to interconnect images dependant on those associations, mirroring his process of hanging photographs on the wall. The books tend to be light on text—often having none other than the title—and are truly more artist book than monograph, despite mass production by major publishers...

...Schmidt continued to explore a landscape and a city fraught with history in his pivotal work Ein-heit (U-ni-ty, 1991–94), shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1996 and published in the same year. The importance of fragmentation as an interpretive trope is reinforced by Schmidt’s dividing with hyphens a word meaning wholeness, diametric forces embodied in the very title of the project. Conventional aesthetics of black and white photography were abandoned in favor of intentionally inconsistent prints, often with compressed, almost monochromatic tonal ranges, large grain, and poor detail, all of which served to reinforce his subjects. The book presents a startling record of Schmidt’s fascinations with the weight of history upon the German citizen, the cultural lineage behind his project, and the interrelatedness of past and present, and the impossibility of truly knowing, especially through photography. A project of epic scope, Schmidt included photographs that he made of portraits and landscapes in Berlin, photographs of objects of significance to the German populace, and re-photographed images resonant in collective German memory. By combining portraiture of ordinary citizens with landscapes changed through history and historical material, Schmidt points to the effects of the latter two on the subjects in the portraits. Examples of re-photographed materials include stills from Leni Reifenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, photographs of soldiers of the German Democratic Republic passing a review, and a tablet inscribed with the third stanza of the German national anthem, the lyrics of which were used under the Weimar Republic and the Federal Republic. Images are doubled on facing pages, cropped tightly to fragment the scene, printed backwards, and otherwise freely manipulated.

Dense with precise historical references but also elusively vague at points, and lacking a declarative personal style, Schmidt’s work has not achieved the international market success of many of his better-known German contemporaries. Nonetheless, Schmidt continues to live and work in Berlin, weaving his own layers into the variegated strata of German culture and history. His legacy is already enormous. (from the 20th Century Encyclopedia of Photography)"

Probably the two easiest books of his to get hold of are Michael Schmidt: Berlin Nach 1945 and Irgendwo. His best, and possibly most important, book is Waffenruhe - but it's almost impossible to find and even more impossible to find at an affordable price ($1250.00 at Vincent Borrelli)

""Irgendwo" presents rather bleak views of province-life in the reunited Germany with suburban houses and village pubs, deserted low-cost supermarkets and historical buildings, as well as distanced motorways cutting through the landscape. Typically for his Modus Operandi Schmidt conflates architectural and landscape photographs with portraits and shots of seemingly unimportant details. It is only through the arrangement in groups - the interplay and dialogue between the images - that the individual images acquire their distinct meaning and the issue of a relation between spatial environment and individual biography comes into view. The photographs, however, do not depict particular places. In his work Schmidt seems to be more interested in tracing the loss of a subjective connection to "home as a place with identity":

"Home says nothing to me. In any case, home is what you carry with you, inside you. You remember places because you spent the most wonderful or the most horrible time there during your childhood. But these places have become more arbitrary, less specific. ... There is no such thing as an objective category that one might call 'home' any more. Such things take place subjectively nowadays."" (Michael Schmidt)

There's information on a previous exhibition of Irgendwo here

Personally I find looking at Schmidt's photogrpahy to be an intense and deep experience - in many ways it is a counterbalance to (or antidote to?) much contemporary photogrpahy, especially of the Gursky, Struth or Soth style. Even some of his "straightest" images have an air of enigma about them and their are layers to unravel - especially in a series. It provokes thought and imagination, having the depth of a good poem - and it takes as much work as reading a good poem to draw out its many meanings.


Federico said...

Beautiful selection of pictures, Tim. I wonder when Waffenruhe will be republished. Have wanted it for quite some time...

Luis said...

Schmidt's photographs are strong and very mature. Their strange edginess reminds me of Zoe Leonard's.

--- Luis

narikin said...

dont know why you say I was a "pupil" of Schmidt, as its absolutely not true. we were and still are good friends, but I have never studied photography ever, anywhere, with anyone... let alone M.S.

I did spend a lot of time with Michael (& Gosbert Adler & Volker Heinz & Joachim Brohm) in Berlin in the late 1980's, and they often visited me in London. So yes, there was 'Another German School' going on, along the Berlin-Essen axis, but as far as I know none of them were "pupils" of Schmidt, anymore than Michael was a pupil of John Gossage or Lewis Baltz, who came to Berlin in the 1980's to give workshops.

nice blog, but you need to fact check a bit.
Good luck.

tim atherton said...

sorry Paul - I knew that very well (and had written it before) - it's my typo and a section not very well written - writing a blog late at night after I've finally got my young 'uns to bed...

You should, of course, have been in the other list (now corrected)


CAP said...

I was also going to question the teaching credentials granted Schmidt in your post Tim, only because they are at odds with the bio details given for MS in the DAP book HOW YOU LOOK AT IT.

But just as a technical query - I'm also puzzled how you managed to copy the JPEG from the Mitchell-Innes site Flash presentation?

This is something I'm forever trying to do for my own blogging purposes without success - any tips?