Michael Schmidt 1945-2014

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Michael Schmidt, who just won the Prix Pictet photography prize for his epic Lebensmittel project, died on Saturday in Berlin. He was 68 years old.

Schmidt was born in Berlin, the year World War 2 ended and the city was divided into two parts. The city’s division was literally cemented in 1961 when the East German government erected the Berlin Wall. Legally, the government of West Germany had almost no power over the enclave. While on the one hand looking like most other West German city, in reality West Berlin was also “an occupied territory under the formal sovereignty of the allies” (source; the same was true for East Berlin, a fact not recognized by the East German and Soviet governments).

As a consequence, West Berlin became a very strange city. Large parts of the past were frozen in place. At the same time, the desire to join the Wirtschaftswunder had the same effect it had elsewhere. In addition, West Berlin would attract those unhappy with what was going on in West Germany (incl. those escaping the military draft), or those unhappy wherever they were, looking for something new (this includes artists like David Bowie). And then there were the Berliners themselves with their Berliner Schnauze.

Schmidt was a self-taught photographer who quit his job as a policeman when he decided that he wanted to be a photographer. He told me he had become an apprentice with the police because his parents insisted on him having a steady, safe job. Quitting it, however, was something he needed to do, even if it meant the kinds of hardships many photographers are only too familiar with – a shortage of money being most prominent. His photography centered on the city of West Berlin, its buildings and people, and, most crucially, its atmosphere. I want to think that while a lot of the work shows West Berlin (at least until the Wall came down), in reality it deals with what Germans call the city’s – and given the mastery with which Schmidt approached his work – the country’s Befindlichkeit (there is no good English word that includes the many different ideas this German word contains; if you combine the terms given by dict.cc you might get an idea).

In Schmidt’s work, the move towards capturing the Befindlichkeit in pictures evolved from the photographer’s earlier works in, say, the districts of Kreuzberg or Wedding, to what came to be his break-through as an artist, a body of work entitled Waffenruhe. A selection of Waffenruhe (the German word for ceasefire) was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s fourth New Photography exhibition. An amazing body of work, unfortunately, the book is sold out, and copies are very hard to find.

In parallel to working as a photographer, in 1976 Schmidt founded the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography), which he also led for a while. Schmidt invited a number of American photographers to Berlin to work and teach there, including William Eggleston and John Gossage. His and the Werkstatt‘s influence on German photography have yet to be re-discovered and re-evaluated.

A year after Schmidt’s work was shown at MoMA, the Berlin Wall came down. As a result East and West Germany reunited: East Germany joined West Germany. One would imagine such a monumental event resulting in a major upheaval, an opportunity to deal with the country’s past. But none of that happened. Helmut Kohl, then the West German chancellor, had been quite unpopular up until the Wall came down. But he was re-elected handily in the first elections to include East and West Germans, given he was viewed as having masterminded reunification. Kohl preferred governing by not dealing with problems or challenges – he simply waited for them to go away or to sort themselves out on their own.

While before reunification West Germany felt as if it was stagnating, with too many unresolved things being kept frozen, after reunification East Germany experienced the exact same treatment: promises were made to win the election, and they weren’t kept. Problems wouldn’t be dealt with. In large parts of Eastern Germany, the far right started to rear its ugly head. Kohl had to be voted out of power for what one can think of as the new, truly reunited Germany to emerge. Ever perceptive to the country’s Befindlichkeit, between 1991 and 1994 Michael Schmidt produced Ein-Heit, a body of work dealing with all the things the newly reunited Germany at first wouldn’t deal with. In 1996, Ein-Heit – now given an English title, U-Ni-Ty – was shown at MoMA (find the original press release here).

Neither Waffenruhe nor Ein-Heit are easy to approach for the viewer. They both need to be felt more than seen. At the same time, I cannot think of any other contemporary German photographer who has dealt with the country he was born into as deeply as Schmidt. It is the depth and quality of both Waffenruhe and Ein-Heit that make Schmidt the most important German photographer of the late 20th Century (basing importance not on the square footage and/or prices of photographs, but on artistic merit).

In both books – just like in large parts of his oevre – Schmidt worked in what technically speaking would be black and white photography. Between the extremes of black and white, there is an infinity of grey tones, and it is these tones that he used for his work in ways that give it so much power. It would only be appropriate for Munich’s Haus der Kunst to give its major 2009 retrospective of Schmidt’s work the title Grey as Colour. Schmidt: “Grey is my colour. There are thousands of grey gradations. Black and white are always the darkest and the lightest grey”. (source)

Having produced the definitive photographic statements around the Germany of around the 1970s to the mid 1990s, Schmidt turned his attention somewhat away from Berlin (and the fertile ground the city provided), to produce Frauen (Women; 2000), Irgendwo (Somewhere; 2005), and Lebensmittel (Groceries; 2012), the latter of which would result in the Prix Pictet photography prize. It only seems appropriate that Schmidt’s contribution to contemporary photography would be recognized through one of its most prestigious prizes. Three days after being awarded the Prix Pictet, Schmidt died in Berlin.