Born in 1945 after the end of World War II, Michael Schmidt, Berlin-born German photographer and winner of the prestigious Prix Pictet award in 2014, which is the highest recognition in photography in relation to contemporary environmental issues, was one of the most influential social-documentary photographers of the world. His approach to photography was investigatory and documentary; having spent seven years researching and photographing farm animals, factories, food & packaging. Despite his carefully planning and drafting his projects, the resulting outcome could still be completely unknown and could result in failure, which he accepted as an intrinsic element of the creative process (Buonpadre, 2016)
Perhaps it is this acceptance of making mistakes that each of his series is distinct from one another and has its own communicative language. His approach to each new series was characterised by a unique new angle, another innovative way of recording and presenting his area of interest, making it hard to put his work into a stereotype, perhaps explaining why his works have not reached as widespread an audience as they deserved (Buonpadre, 2016)
‘… I always stroll straight into a cul-de-sac and can’t find a way out. Then I come to terms with this as a sort of condition and at some point later on, I’m back on the outside again. […] That is to say, failure or making mistakes is an integral part of my way of working.’(Schimdt)
His previous works characterised working within a frame of a series or a book, where every individual photograph was defined by its own meaning and existence, yet gained a broader meaning once put together with other images as if to create a photographic language, devoid of any accompanying texts. His application of both a realistic and a flawless pictorial style documenting social and environmental themes, allow his subjects to speak for themselves. Having studied painting and then self-taught photography, his works reflects the aesthetics of both the disciplines together. Due to his grey monochromatic images, His work might appear bleak and desolate, but he is simply revealing what he explores, without judging or accusing. His style avoids superficiality – he bends more towards a straight approach to his subject and he consciously replaces the colours of the world with a range of greys (Buonpadre, 2016).
‘…gray is my color. There are thousands of gray gradations. Black and white are always the darkest and the lightest gray.’(Schimdt, 2006-10)
The main focus of his interests ever since he began taking pictures in 1968, has been on the city of Berlin, his birth town and where he has spent his life. Waffenruhe, considered as one of his best works, presented the people, landscape and architecture of Berlin just a few years before its fall, depicting a city isolated in decay, along with its people (Buonpadre, 2016)
In the decades that followed, Schmidt’s approach became more impressionistic, where he would shoot thousands of frames without being too concerned with the end result, which would only emerge later by means of rigorous editing. Increasingly, his approach became more focused on series over single images, and atmospheric over documentary approach. His series Waffenruhe is a darkly atmospheric place, where nothing is quite as it seems, where images evoke a intimate kind of dislocation and are loaded with ominous suggestions (O’Hagan, 2014)
His previous documentation of the architecture of Berlin with its austere residential buildings and offices, resulted in the series Berlin Stadtbilder. Schmidt’s work not only serves important as documents but also because it reflects the social realities that echo and resonate in his capturing of the residents at particular socio-historical moments (Buonpadre, 2016)
The contrast between the newly born Berlin and its past resurfaces in EIN-HEIT (U-nit-y, 1991- 94), that consisted of Schmidt’s own photographs and clips from magazines, newspapers and pamphlets. The resulting collection is poetic and represents collective and individual memories about German reunification but ones that still resonate universally and are timeless. The power of evocation that characterises Schmidt’s books are offered by the insights on historical or social realities, at the same time challenging the viewer to dig into their own personal emotions in relation to the themes presented at the same time. His atypical way of developing projects, characterised by his investigative and documentary approach, focusing on creating a visual language instead of a decisive moment, placed Schmidt as an influential artist within the photography world (Buonpadre, 2016)
His last work, series Lebensmitte (2006–10), was an investigation into the way people fed themselves by exploring the various processes involves behind the European food system, from the farms to people’s homes and is characterised by painterly qualities in all 177 photographs. Armed with his characteristic documentary form of investigative journalism, he is successful in capturing the social reality and the poverty of the food industry in a realistic form, which is neither accusatory or dismissive but just presentation of reality. In this series, he has focused on the transformation of a contingent image into a meaningful picture. His concern has not been on finding a clear, self-sufficient aesthetic form. The prime focus has that been of universality of the images in this show (Stadler, 2012).
Lebensmittel (Groceries; 2012), that the artist collected over 7 years of visits to industrial slaughter houses, factory farms and supermarkets, was the first work of the artist to use colour as a medium, but still retaining his work’s characteristic sense of obscurity and alienation in the sense of hardly displaying the glossy finished products of the food factories but instead choosing to focus on the detritus and waste, the by-products of their industrial processes. In fact his photos are remarkable for the very fact of a complete absence of chiaroscuro, floating in between the two extremes of B&W, caught in the grey and ambivalent middle, just like Berlin was between the political poles of East and West (AnOther, 2014).
In Schmidt’s opinion, photography is the only tool apart from the derivatives of photography like film and television, that portray reality to the last detail, therefore making it an ideal means of documenting reality in a valid and credible form. The photographer’s intentions does not matter but his creative process does, which remains subjective. He prefers to shoot in B&W is as it allows the viewer the maximum amount of neutrality within the limits of the medium. By neutralising the colour spectrum into a range of greys, it permits the viewer to see it in their own individual and personal colour tastes, thereby allowing the viewer to form an objective opinion about the image from a neutral standpoint without being distracted emotionally and independent of their subjective colour perception (ASX, 2010).
‘I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. The viewer must allow the objects portrayed in the photograph to take their effect upon him without being distracted by shadows or other mood effects’.(Schmidt, 2010)
Photography for him is a means to record the environment and he subordinates himself completely to the objects he photographed. In his opinion, a successful selection in documentary photography is entirely based upon the credibility of the image with regards to the authenticity of its contents, never being in doubt, either in our own or later generations. Much of his work is aimed at deriving experience from a photographed reality, documenting the failures and absences that he finds reflected in the relations between the humans an environment irreversibly marked by German history (ASX, 2010).
I need my images as confirmation of that which I have experienced, and, to be sure, in a different form from that in which I experienced it. I change in the course of everyday life and create, in the form of liberation and the production of harmony, that which has represented itself as failed in every day.(Schimdt, 2012)
Schidt died on 24th May 2014 after a severe illness at the age of 68, just three days after receiving one of photography’s most illustrious accolades, the Prix Pictet award.
Schmidt’s creative process and practice was marked by a sober, factual and an almost investigative or analytical style of documentary photography. focusing on the significance of urban spaces, its history, self-portraiture women’s self-images, and the importance of nature and food, constantly evolving photographic scrutiny of reality.
Key points and learnings from Schmidt’s works-
- Focus on social and environmental themes.
- Sober, factual investigative, analytical and documentary approach to photography.
- He accepted unknown outcomes and failure as a part of the creative process.
- Each of his series is distinct with its own communicative language.
- Works showcased as series or books.
- His work contains aesthetics of both painting and photography.
- Love for grey monochromatic images.
- A straight approach to photography with no embellishments or superficialities.
- Shooting thousands of frames followed by a rigorous editing method.
- His photography represents documentation of socio-economic reality.
- His images resonate universally and are timeless, unrelated to the actual places they might have been captured at.
- Atypical way of developing projects, characterised by his investigative and documentary approach.
- Focus on creating a visual language instead of a decisive moment.
- His works possess a characteristic sense of obscurity and alienation.
- Photography as a tool to document reality in a valid and credible form.
- His love for B&W permits the viewer to form an objective opinion about the image from a neutral standpoint.
- Photography for him is a means to record the environment.
- Authentic documentation devoid of any superficialities.
Fig 1, Schmidt, M. (1985-1987) Untitled (From Waffenruhe), 1985-87 Gelatin Silver Print 90 X 69 Cm Framed: 90,5 X 69,5 Cm. [image] At: https://www.artbasel.com/catalog/artwork/17997/Michael-Schmidt-Untitled-from-Waffenruhe (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 2, Schmidt, M. (1985-1987) Michael Schmidt. Projektion Waffenruhe. [image] At: https://www.artrabbit.com/events/michael-schmidt-projection-waffenruhe (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 3, Schmidt, M. (1985-1987) Untitled (From Waffenruhe/ Ceasefire), 1985-87. [image] At: https://americansuburbx.com/2020/07/a-texture-akin-to-language-alan-huck-revisits-michael-schmidts-waffenruhe.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 4, Schmidt, M. (1985-1987) Untitled (From Waffenruhe/ Ceasefire), 1985-87. [image] At: https://americansuburbx.com/2020/07/a-texture-akin-to-language-alan-huck-revisits-michael-schmidts-waffenruhe.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 5, Schmidt, M. (1976-77) Untitled (From Berlin, Stadtbilder), 1976-1977. [image] At: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/michael-schmidt-untitled-from-berlin-stadtbilder-3 (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 6, Schmidt, M. (1976-80) Berlin Stadtbilder,1976-80. [image] At: https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/gallery/3644/remembering-michael-schmidt/2 (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 7, Schmidt, M. (1991-94) EIN-HEIT (U-Nit-Y, 1991- 94). [image] At: https://americansuburbx.com/2012/06/michael-schmidt-not-fade-away-face-of.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 8, Schmidt, M. (1991-94) EIN-HEIT (U-Nit-Y, 1991- 94). [image] At: https://americansuburbx.com/2012/06/michael-schmidt-not-fade-away-face-of.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 9, Schmidt, M.(1991-94) EIN-HEIT (U-Nit-Y, 1991- 94),. [image] At: https://americansuburbx.com/2012/06/michael-schmidt-not-fade-away-face-of.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 10, Schmidt, M (1991-94) EIN-HEIT (U-Nit-Y, 1991- 94). [image] At: https://americansuburbx.com/2012/06/michael-schmidt-not-fade-away-face-of.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 11, Schmidt, M. (2014) Untitled. [image] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/21/michael-schmidt-wins-prix-pictet-photography-award (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 12, Schmidt, M(2014) Untitled. [image] t: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/21/michael-schmidt-wins-prix-pictet-photography-award (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 13, Schimdt, M. (2006) Untitled, From Lebensmittel , 2006-2010. [image] At: https://photomonth.com/en/portfolio/mocak-beta-gallery/ (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 14, Schimdt, M. (2006) Untitled, From Lebensmittel , 2006-2010. [image] At: https://photomonth.com/en/portfolio/mocak-beta-gallery/ (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Fig 15, Schmidt, M. (1983) Michael Schmidt, Untitled, From Porträt, 1983 [image] At: https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/3644/remembering-michael-schmidt (Accessed 7/09/2020).
Fig 16, Schimdt, M. (1980) Uschi Blume, Untitled, 1980, From The Series Worauf Wartest Du (What Are You Waiting For) © The Artist. [image] At: https://aperture.org/editorial/different-kind-protest-schmidt/ (Accessed 7/09/2020).
AnOther (2014) Remembering Michael Schmidt. At: https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/3644/remembering-michael-schmidt (Accessed 7/09/2020).
ASX, E. (2012) Not Fade Away: The Face Of German History In Michael Schmidt’S Ein-Heit (2003) | AMERICAN SUBURB X. At: https://americansuburbx.com/2012/06/michael-schmidt-not-fade-away-face-of.html (Accessed 7/09/2020).
Berlin, S. (2020) Michael Schmidt – Retrospective. Photographs 1965—2014 | Smb.museum. At: https://www.smb.museum/en/exhibitions/detail/michael-schmidt-retrospective/ (Accessed 7/09/2020).
Buonpadre, S. (2016) Michael Schmidt: Germany’S Prix Pictet Photographer. Culture Trip. At: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/germany/articles/michael-schmidt-germany-s-prix-pictet-photographer/ (Accessed 6/09/2020).
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Michael Schmidt Obituary | The Guardian. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/28/michael-schmidt (Accessed 7/09/2020).
Prix Pictet (2020) Michael Schmidt | Prix Pictet. At: https://www.prixpictet.com/portfolios/consumption-shortlist/michael-schmidt/ (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Stadler, E. (2012) Michael Schmidt. Frieze.com. At: https://www.frieze.com/article/michael-schmidt (Accessed 6/09/2020).
Schmidt, M. (1979) Michael Schmidt: “Thoughts About My Way Of Working” (1979) | AMERICAN SUBURB X. At: https://americansuburbx.com/2010/10/michael-schmidt-thoughts-about-my-way-of-working-1979.html (Accessed 6/09/2020).
The Museum of Modern Art, (2020) Michael Schmidt | Moma. At: https://www.moma.org/artists/5238 (Accessed 6/09/2020).
032c.com. (2017) MICHAEL SCHMIDT: THE GRAY ISLAND – 032C. At: https://032c.com/michael-schmidt-the-gray-island (Accessed 6/09/2020).