BY Kito Nedo in EU Reviews , Reviews | 22 JAN 21
Featured in
Issue 217

Michael Schmidt Photographs the Many Layers of Berlin’s History

The artist’s retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, recalls the political and economic changes of the German capital

BY Kito Nedo in EU Reviews , Reviews | 22 JAN 21

According to Bertolt Brecht’s famous dictum: ‘Realism is not how real things are, but how things really are.’ This is a view reflected in the work of photographer Michael Schmidt, who once told me, ‘I’m not a documentarist. I’m a realist.’ Drawing on an oeuvre spanning five decades, Schmidt’s first retrospective since his death in 2014, curated by Thomas Weski at Hamburger Bahnhof, reveals that his photographic series relate to reality in highly distinctive ways.

Schmidt came to photography as an autodidact. In accordance with his parents’ wish, he started his career in the police force in the late 1960s, resigning in 1973 to pursue a career as photographer. His early documentary series of that time, such as ‘Berlin Kreuzberg’ (1969–73) or ‘Berlin-Wedding’ (1976–78), engage intensively with Berlin’s cityscapes, where sprawling vacant lots and dark firewalls still bore traces of destruction long after the end of the war. He also had a strong interest in the synchrony of social, political and economic processes. With almost sociological zeal, Schmidt photographed scenes from the world of work and the city’s various social realities. ‘Die berufstätige Frau in Kreuzberg’ (The Working Woman in Kreuzberg, 1975), which opens the show, depicts the daily routines of various women and how they juggle work, family and leisure. Each series consists of 15 medium-format prints in which the everyday life of a factory worker is portrayed in a very matter-of-fact way. Subsequently, the exhibition shows how the artist shifted his lens from Kreuzberg, a district historically marked by working-class culture and migration, to other parts of the city and a broader demographic.

Michael Schmidt, Berlin Wedding, 1976–78
Michael Schmidt, Untitled from the series 'Berlin-Wedding', 1976–78, silver gelatine print, 20.4 × 28.0 cm. © Stiftung für Fotografie und Medienkunst 

For his work, Schmidt often found supporters in Berlin’s municipal administration. In the winter of 1975, as we learn from the excellent exhibition catalogue, he even managed to win over the renowned gallerist Rudolf Springer for his first solo show. Schmidt created a portfolio for the exhibition, but not a single print was sold. With commercial success a long time coming, he turned to education and played a key role in establishing a socially critical photography scene in West Berlin – in particular as the founder of the legendary photography workshop at Volkshochschule Kreuzberg in 1976.

Michael Schmidt, Ceasefire, 1985–87
Michael Schmidt, Untitled from the series  'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire), 1985–87, installation view, Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin © Stiftung für Fotografie und Medienkunst; photograph: Matthias Völzke

In the 1980s, Schmidt departed from traditional documentary aesthetics, developing the increasingly wilful, essayistic approach that would secure his lasting influence. His international breakthrough came with his series ‘Waffenruhe’ (Ceasefire, 1985–87) – a key work in this exhibition – that is still praised as a uniquely accurate psychological portrait of divided Berlin in the final phase of the Cold War. The prints are displayed in dark steel frames and, plunging into their dystopian mood, one can almost smell the coalsmoke-laden winter air of the frontline city. Portraits, architectural details and course-grained newspaper clippings add up to a historical panorama, an image of a time in which every corner seems permeated by the politics of division. When, after decades of struggle, rapid political and social change came to Berlin in 1989, Schmidt’s next big series, ‘Ein-heit’ (Unity, 1991–94), reflected the foreignness with which inhabitants of East and West Germany faced each other when the wall fell and their separation suddenly ended.

Michael Schmidt, Unity, 1991-94
Michael Schmidt, Untitled from the series 'Ein-heit' (Unity), 1991–94, silver gelatine print, 50.6 × 34.6 cm. © Stiftung für Fotografie und Medienkunst

This excellent retrospective reveals how Schmidt developed a specific photographic idiom for each of his series. ‘Frauen’ (Women, 1997–99) consists of understated portraits and nudes of young women that do not seek to idealize. His later work ‘Lebensmittel’ (Food, 2006–10), the first in colour, is an in-depth study of the logistics of production and delivery in a globalized food industry. The thread running through Schmidt’s extensive oeuvre is his will to defend photographic practice as a means of producing and grasping reality – even and especially at a time when it had long since forfeited this function.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main image: Michael Schmidt, Stadtoberinspektor beim Bezirksamt Wedding (City Chief Inspector at the Wedding District Office), from the series 'Berlin-Wedding', 1976–78, silver gelatine print, 43.4 × 46.0 cm. © Stiftung für Fotografie und Medienkunst 

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.