Michael Schmidt (1945–2014)

Michael Schmidt, “Lebensmittel,” 2006–10, c-print, 22 x 32”.

I AM NOT SURE if it’s appropriate to picture someone who was a great human being with a tremendous love of life by first mentioning that he was a former policeman. But imagine a friendly cop, someone who would know how valuable the idea of organization and order is for society. Michael Schmidt wouldn’t let go. So when you discussed images with him, he would have a firm conviction, paired with an openness and tremendous generosity to give advice and support. He would be sure of his own work by the time he showed it, but he freely admitted that he wasn’t certain until he had it where he needed it to be, and that discovery process could take many years. And he would be staunchly convinced of other people’s work, too, which allowed him to help a great number of artists, especially once he founded his legendary Workshop for Photography in Berlin in the late 1970s.

Berlin was then, and to a certain degree is still, a provincial city. To a great extent he coined the images we associate today with its leaden past, when the wall was still up and the city seemed to be a dead end. He actually described himself as working in a cul-de-sac. When asked if he could work somewhere else, too, he replied, “Of course I could, but I wouldn’t know why.” He made black-and-white images of the corners no one loves, cares about, or ever had any aesthetic ambition for. Yet he wasn’t unemotional about the place, he was just unsentimental, and his clear, unblurred view onto the small world he saw matched—in his own, very recognizable dialect—pretty much what other people in other countries were recognizing as iconic as well. That made his work, if not international (as it’s not about being linked to some global aesthetic), then inspiring for people elsewhere who didn’t suffer from a similarly desolate environment. Though he was until recently mostly noticed in smaller circles rather than the broader public he deserved, he was nevertheless massively influential for a number of generations of German photographers without directly being their teacher.

But work that looks today like a classic Teutonic view onto our trite and demure environment, which defined the everyday in West Germany, was just one aspect of his efforts. His surroundings changed, and so did he. His sensitive attention turned toward more fundamental concerns: The last body of work which gained international acclaim was about food (his series “Lebensmittel,” in literal translation, “means to live”), which I saw over the years in different formations and constellations in his studio located in the two Germany’s former Grenzland (borderland). He started to use color photography, sparsely—and surely not for the same reasons others do, but rather to show, for instance, the grotesqueness of packaged meat that reveals a clown’s face when sliced. It was shocking: Apples would suddenly look aggressively healthy, cabbage depressing. He had a great sense of humor and was a man who was not as granite faced as one would think looking at his prints. Schmidt was ill for a year, seriously facing death, without losing his resilient vigor. He knew time was running out, and he worked until his last weeks, just publishing a book called Nature a few days before he passed away. That book looks like his legacy: I don’t think he believed in fate, and the sixty-some pictures in the book at least wouldn’t suggest that. Here, the photographer’s eye looks at trees, undergrowth, fields, one odd cow, and branches. His stoic view is unsentimental, not looking for solace in the romantic, and absolutely aware of an unbridgeable distance between himself and the unimpressed nature around him, which runs its course with logic but without any divine dramaturgy.

Thomas Demand is an artist based in Berlin and Los Angeles.