Kolja Reichert remembers the late photographer Michael Schmidt and his pictures of a Berlin that most others overlooked
Kolja Reichert remembers the late photographer Michael Schmidt and his pictures of a Berlin that most others overlooked
I’ve just taken Michael Schmidt’s book Berlin nach 1945 (Berlin After 1945, 2005) off the shelf. The book contains the photographs he took in 1980 in the neighbourhood between Mehringplatz and the Wall. Glancing up from its pages, I look out the window of my high-rise apartment onto the same neighbourhood, 34 years later. The photos in the book show the entrance to an underground garage; in the background, the vacant lot not yet occupied by Daniel Libeskind’s new Jewish Museum; the raised parking space across the road, empty except for a single car under a plastic cover; the facade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once Berlin’s largest railway terminus, a romantic ruin in a rubbish-strewn steppe; and only one picture of the Wall, taken through the doorway to a courtyard. Apart from this: vacant lots, firewalls, mud, puddles, a Citroen 2CV, an Opel Kadett. And no people. The poster on the wall to the right must originally have said ‘Auf geht’s’ (let’s go) until someone tore away the ‘Auf’, leaving a far less dynamic statement (akin to a questioning ‘hanging in there?’).
Berlin then was a city of bombsites and blockades, one of stumbling and stasis; the city that made Michael Schmidt’s oeuvre possible. For me, his friend, he was the great, awe-inspiring, incorruptible punk of German photography, who departed before his time on 24 May this year. On the way to the funeral, my neighbour, the photographer Tobias Zielony, boarded the train with a steaming cup from the much-praised new coffee bar at the southern end of Friedrichstrasse. Now it’s we, his young friends and colleagues, who live in the houses once used in Schmidt’s brutally austere photographs to expose the various gravities of German history.
Somewhere in Schmidt’s archive there is a portrait of Gerhard Schröder, taken in Hanover in 1999 when Schröder was chancellor. I’ve never seen it, nor have many others, as Schmidt never published it. He once explained to me that another image – of an anonymous CEO on the back seat of a limousine from
the EIN-HEIT series (UN-IT-Y, 1991–94), his pinched, staring face in half shadow – is a better image of power.
Schmidt could certainly have had it easier. Others became rich and famous by photographing things that everyone was already interested in, or by travelling the world to take the same picture over and over in different settings. Schmidt, though, broke the mould with each new series. In 1967, while Michael Ruetz was shooting iconic images of historic demonstrations and sit-ins, Schmidt was exploring Kreuzberg’s courtyards. And in 1989, when pictures of partying crowds on the Berlin Wall went around the world, he was taking photos of deserted squares in East German housing projects. These photographs were published in 2010 in the small book 89/90. Page 89: a photograph of a mountain of rubbish protruding above a fence. Page 90: the same picture again. And again on page 91. Fuck your magical reunification. Fuck your euphoria about the future.
Schmidt’s work is inscribed with an uncompromising resistance –precisely because it is entirely free of agitation, theatricality or drama. Because it plunges into formal conflicts where every statement is against resolution. Whereas photography is often still treated as a window onto the world, Schmidt showed that photographs can also be surfaces where the gaze rebounds off firewalls, vacant lots, window shutters. He showed that pictures can be repeated and ironized, like the lady with the triple chin in Schmidt’s chef d’oeuvre EIN -HEIT (published 1996) who reappears, mirrored, when one turns the page. Or that they can create irresolvable feedback loops of collective memory when they jump back and forth between overdetermination and a refusal to speak, again in EIN-HEIT: floral patterned wallpaper; plans for a concentration camp featuring a moiré effect; Adolf Eichmann in a hat; a tapestry with two medieval musicians; a murky grey picture of the sea. The void and its counterpart, the visual block, are the primary motifs in Schmidt’s photographs. His legacy lies in the suggestion of sequentiality that constantly sabotages itself and in representation that rebels against its own frame.
In the series Waffenruhe (Ceasefire, 1985–87), dealing with the reality of the Berlin Wall, Schmidt developed an editing technique (the edit as excerpt and break) that relinquishes any claim to a sovereign overview, a technique he pursued further in EIN-HEIT, Frauen (Women, 1997–99, published 2000) and Lebensmittel (Food, 2006–10, published 2012). Published in 1987, Waffenruhe was the first time he fully exploited the potential of the book form, consistently taking an anti-narrative approach that deliberately shot itself in the foot. The volume has cinematic qualities, restricted view after restricted view: leftover tape between two tree trunks like the remains of a cordon or bandage; a bit of dirt on a pane of glass obscuring the view of a blurred street beyond; graffiti on a section of Wall that had been carelessly, indifferently painted over. The pictured subjects seem too big for the viewfinder. Too big, too close, impossible to get past. And when these enclosed scenes are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a human figure – a young punk in a sad pose – his face is blurred, the focus lying instead on his clasped hands. In this way, he shifted the impact from individual pictures into the gaps between them, causing the images to constantly call each other into question. Waffenruhe represents an exemplary juxtaposition of the objective image and the subjective view, performing their contradictions rather than trying to resolve them in a specific sense, as he had done a decade earlier.
For an attempt at resolution from a subjective viewpoint, we can look to Schmidt’s first book published in 1973, a survey of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district (Berlin Kreuzberg). It contains empathetic portraits of artists and immigrant children, romantic courtyard scenes and architectural studies that recall the US photographer Paul Strand, such as Hochbahn, im Hintergrund Postscheckamt Berlin-West (Elevated railroad, West Berlin Postal Check Office in the background). (Strand’s books were the first purchased by a 20-year-old Schmidt in 1965, early on in his personal discovery of photography.) Five years after the Berlin Kreuzberg series, reportage’s claim to depict people, things and living conditions as objectively as possible led Schmidt in the opposite direction, towards a more clinical approach: people at home and at work, carefully lit, follow a section showing deserted streets in his book on another Berlin district (Berlin-Wedding, 1978). This book was the only time Schmidt came close to the school of Bernd and Hilla Becher, before abandoning such strict formalism the same year, exemplified by the photos in his book Berlin. Stadtlandschaft und Menschen (Berlin. Cityscape and People).
Schmidt was an autodidact and, from an early age, did things his own way. In 1965, he joined an amateur photographic society to hone his technical skills but left soon after. ‘When they photographed rain’, he later explained in an interview, ‘it looked like glass beads. When I photographed rain, it looked like rain.’ In photography courses at adult education colleges in Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Schmidt soon switched from studying to teaching. Because there were few opportunities to exhibit photography at the time, he took it upon himself to show his series Das Alter (Age) in Möckernbrücke underground station in 1974 and Die berufstätige Frau (Working Women) at Kreuzberg Town Hall a year later. The same year, he became one of the first German photographers to exhibit in a contemporary art gallery. After visiting a Brassaï show at Rudolf Springer on Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse, he called the gallery to introduce himself. Springer: ‘So what’s your approach to photography?’ Schmidt: ‘I take pictures in Berlin.’ Looking at these pictures at Schmidt’s studio the next day, Springer reportedly said: ‘They’re all boring. But there’s method to them. We’ll do an exhibition.’
In 1976, Schmidt founded the Workshop for Photography at Kreuzberg’s adult education college, making a contribution to postwar German photography that has yet to be fully evaluated. Alongside the photography classes run by the Bechers at the Dusseldorf Art Academy and by Otto Steinert at the Folkwangschule in Essen, Kreuzberg became the third centre of a nascent discourse on art photography. Schmidt’s course sought contact with developments in the UK and the US, inviting colleagues like John Gossage and William Eggleston to Berlin to lecture and teach. In 1978, Schmidt showed parts of the pioneering exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape that was originally shown in 1975 in Rochester, New York. Recalling his first visit to Berlin, Gossage wrote in 1987 that Schmidt and his students wanted to: ‘pick the Americans’ brains. […] The US seemed to be doing the most interesting work at the time and they wanted to know how it was done. Something that might have been true then but has certainly changed 180 degrees since.’1
Gossage’s Anglo-Saxon charitableness seems right. While Gossage’s own pictures of the Wall may have been what presented it as a worthwhile motif, his stylized approach in the tradition of American landscape photography was eclipsed by the sobriety of Schmidt’s Waffenruhe. With this series, Schmidt found his singular idiom, overcoming the illusion of objectivity in favour of a radical subjectivity, without ever slipping into the personal or the anecdotal. A solo show curated by Peter Galassi at MoMA in New York in 1988 brought Schmidt international recognition. But even after this museum validation, the book remained the conceptual framework for Schmidt’s series. Exhibitions are variations on the original, but Schmidt approached them with the same ruthless precision. In a show at Munich’s Haus der Kunst in 2010, for example, the photographs from EIN-HEIT were regimentally hung in steel frames at the same height at regular intervals around the monumental hall.
In photographs by the Bechers and many of their students like Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth, the classificatory thinking of the Enlightenment still exerts an influence, albeit in broken form. Their images always also celebrate the apparatus of production. With their supposed neutrality, they stabilize a viewing space in which the roles of those who make pictures and what they depict are clearly defined. Schmidt’s photography collapses this space again and again. Each picture presents itself as part of a situated exchange between subjects, mediated via the camera. The result is an existential introspection with no trace of sentimentality – objectivity without neutrality.
In Berlin-Wedding, Schmidt was still attempting to reach context-specificity through distance to his subject matter. In Waffenruhe this was achieved differently: the photographic apparatus looks back at itself, and all elements of the ‘photographic encounter’,2 including the photographer – and ultimately also the viewer – were called to account. This was a context-specificity that did without a firm basis, a practice that constantly reflected on its own conditions and that culminated in the photographs of Schmidt’s own genitals included in his 2010 Haus der Kunst retrospective (Untitled, from the series SELBST, Self, 1985).
In his book Regieren im Bildraum (Ruling Pictorial Space, 2008) Tom Holert distinguishes between pictures that generate difference and those that generate identity, thus not actually being pictures in the strict sense – like passport and ID photographs.3 In EIN-HEIT Schmidt included his own portrait, that of his identity card, but by reframing it he reappropriated it from his official state registration. It is precisely through his use of pictures that refuse pictorial status – only gaining impact in combination through contrast, repetition, mirroring and empty pages – that Schmidt can be understood to reclaim pictoriality.
With its laconic severity and no-bullshit pragmatism, Schmidt’s photography resembles the Brutalist architecture on which it often focused – be it buildings by Werner Düttmann in Kreuzberg or the Ihme Zentrum in Hanover where he took his first pictures outside Berlin in 1997. This was also where he photographed the series Frauen, which was pasted up on billboards with no further explanation as part of the Berlin Biennale in 2010. Disconcerting in their austere objectivity the details of female bodies were not obscured by an erotic charge or false empathy. They were proof of Schmidt’s radical pragmatism and his struggle towards a new, common sense humanism – something which he spoke of on numerous occasions towards the end of his life.
In Schmidt’s reflexive approach, any system exists not least in order to challenge itself. It is only logical, then, after 40 years of maintaining an abstract distance to reality via black and white photography, that his series Lebensmittel, in a change prompted in part by his first use of a digital camera, should make limited use of colour: the pink of a slice of mortadella, the pale yellow of a frozen pizza. Interestingly his exploration of the food industry, for which he visited factories and plantations across Europe, brought him as close as he had been to the content-focus of reportage photography since Berlin-Wedding. But these photographed subjects are detached from their locations. Schmidt’s approach to the strictures of the food industry is less illustrative than structural, as when he juxtaposes the head and rear end of a cow in pictures that seem to mirror each other. In 2013, Lebensmittel was shown at the 55th Venice Biennale and Schmidt was posthumously awarded the Prix Pictet in London for the series a year later.
In the final months of his life Schmidt produced a new book with his assistant Laura Bielau. It is small, bound in bright green linen, and titled Natur (Nature, 2014). It shows a majestic gnarled tree in a clearing, the light falling through its crown; on the facing page, the same tree, the camera angle lowered slightly. A branch bathed in sunlight against a slightly blurred backdrop of conifers is pictured; on the next double spread, the same image again, enlarged, as if opening your eyes a little wider. This is not untouched nature, and anything but a romantic gaze, but the book does modify Schmidt’s image as a photographer of merely concrete landscapes. In these counter-images to the built urban environment there are echoes of EIN-HEIT, as well as of Waffenruhe and the early Kreuzberg pictures. The photographs in Natur were taken between 1987 and ’97. That they have been published now comes across as a belated letting go. Like the streets of Kreuzberg, these snippets of nature are almost deserted, except for a cow, a duck and a fieldfare. But one gap is especially marked here – that left by the passing of this discoverer of problems, teller of jokes, inquisitive friend and remarkable photographer.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
1 John Gossage, Stadt des Schwarz / Eighteen
Photographs of Berlin by John Gossage (Loosestrife, Washington, D.C., 1987)
2 See Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, New York, 2008)
3 ‘Picturelessness can thus mean, on the one hand, an absence of images in the pictorial space of the present due to censorship and repression, but also, on the other, the overwhelming presence of such pictures that consist exclusively in their function, such as that of identification.’ Tom Holert, Regieren im Bildraum (b_books, Berlin, 2008), p. 22