When the late photographer Michael Schmidt was asked what his approach to photography was, he answered simply: “I take pictures in Berlin.” An appropriately understated response from the man whose radically unsentimental images uniquely captured a severed city as it forged its postwar identity.
With no formal training, he would become one of Germany’s most important social-documentary photographers. Now, a new exhibition at Berlin’s train station-turned-gallery, Hamburger Bahnhof, offers a comprehensive look at his life’s work.
The retrospective — the first in his hometown for 25 years — features portraits, self-portraits, cityscapes, landscapes, and still lifes. Along with his epochal series (Waffenruhe, (Ceasefire), 1987, Ein-heit (U-ni-ty), 1996, Lebensmittel (Foodstuff), 2012), the exhibition presents unpublished work, book designs, and archival materials to illustrate the development of Schmidt’s art.
Organized into eight main areas of interest, the exhibition opens with photographs of the districts of Kreuzberg and Wedding taken between 1969 and 1981 on behalf of Berlin’s district administrative authorities or the Berlin Senate, depicting the daily lives of these residents. Although the urban landscapes created in the 1970s and 1980s still show the West Berlin cityscape typical of the postwar period in documentary photographs, it was here that Schmidt discovered a style uniting documentation and abstraction.
Ironically, it is the absence of drama that makes the self-taught photographer’s images so compelling. In the 70s and 80s, photographers were seeking out discrete expressions of the social and political agitation in the divided city. Meanwhile, Schmidt’s austere monochrome photographs of empty lots and sprawling puddles resists sentimentality or a totalizing message. As art writer Kolja Reichart notes, they are “inscribed with an uncompromising resistance.”
His Waffenruhe series, captured in the preceding years to the fall of the Berlin Wall, exemplifies how, as Kathryn O’Regan writes, he wielded “monochromatic photography as an extraordinary weapon of resistance.” His anti-authoritarian approach would influence generations of photographers and see his work exhibited MoMA, the 2006 Berlin Biennale, Berlin’s Haus der Kunst, and now at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. The retrospective runs until January 12, 2021.
Michael Schmidt – Retrospective
Now until 17, January 2021