San Francisco

Joachim Schmid

Artists willing to face the Herculean challenge of channeling the relentless deluge of photographic imagery face a profoundly modern futility: There’s no possible way to manage the sheer overload. Nevertheless, in the catalogue for his current twenty-five-year survey, Joachim Schmid announces that he has reached the point of being able to sift through ten thousand photos a day. The German artist’s practice since the early ’80s has been to act as a found-image filter—first as critic, then as artist.

The exhibition, “Selected Photoworks 1982–2007,” which was organized by the Frances Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and Photographers’ Gallery, London, includes selections from nine series, which together illustrate the enormous task of successfully making art from the photographic tsunami. Schmid wrestles with the discarded and the overlooked, organizing pictures into ordered arrangements via analog and digital resources. He’s been in the game long enough to see marked changes in imaging technology, the maturation of art about archives, and the increased interest in vernacular photography. In retrospect, however, these conditions aren’t exactly sympathetic. During the time he’s been working, numerous other artists—Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski, Rebeca Bollinger—have grappled with similar issues, creating a busy subgenre. And Schmid’s work, being purposefully demure (and here somewhat drably installed), doesn’t immediately stand out from the pack.

The epic Bilder von der Strasse (Pictures from the Street), 1982–, for example, is the result of an ongoing practice of gathering photographs on urban walks. His finds include ID pictures, snapshots, and photo-booth strips, all of which he affixes neatly to consistently sized board. Sometimes he rescues pictures that have been torn up, perhaps in anger, and carefully pieces them back together, creating intentional-looking mosaics. More than a hundred from this massive group, selected via a seemingly arbitrary formula, are installed here in a single chronological line that meanders through a series of Yerba Buena’s awkward hallway galleries. Pleasures—and psychologically charged moments—do accompany these random juxtapositions, but the whole seems oddly inert, less a transformation of material than simply an acknowledgment of a familiar mode of presentation.

A similar effect plagues a 2004 series titled “Cyberspaces,” a sequence of acid-colored webcam images procured through interactive sex sites. The pixel-fractured pictures show rooms with magenta moiré curtains and lime-green floral sheets, accessorized with the occasional sex toy. These settings have somehow been vacated, according to the artist, at his request, a strategy that diverges from Schmid’s found-photo ethos by roping in a substantial degree of artistic and personal complicity. More problematic is the fact that this particular genre of setting has already been charted very effectively by Thomas Ruff, Larry Sultan, and Justin Jorgensen (by the last, in his kitschy blog, Obscene Interiors).

The Web has been a boon to image cataloguers, and Schmid employed keyword searches extensively in the making of Menschen und Dinge 853 Bilder für das 21. Jahrhundert (People and Things—853 Pictures for the Twenty-first Century), 2006, a sequence of twenty-two sets of digital images presented at a leisurely slide-show pace on three monitors. Each set isn’t a massive archive but rather a selection of pictures of swimming pools, the Bush cabinet, beauty queens, employees of the month, or neckties. These groupings do form typologies, yet the artlessness of the presentation makes them as easy to dismiss as yesterday’s blog posting. Perhaps that is Schmid’s point, but the piece itself evaporates on contact.

Far more effective is “Photogenetic Drafts,” 1991, a series of black-and-white composite portraits, each created by splicing together halves of two different negatives from the donated files of a Bavarian commercial photo studio. Grafting together male and female, young and old, hip and square, Schmid creates new characters that are uncannily whole. While composed of decades-old fragments, “Drafts” manages to be the most coherent project in the exhibition, a memorable channeling of images of the forgotten.

Glen Helfand