Berlin

View of “John Coplans and Michael Schmidt: The Lingering Drama of the Body,” 2020–21. From left: John Coplans, Self Portrait, Frieze No. 5, 1994; Michael Schmidt, works from the series “Frauen” (Women), 1997–99. Photo: Gerhard Kassner.

View of “John Coplans and Michael Schmidt: The Lingering Drama of the Body,” 2020–21. From left: John Coplans, Self Portrait, Frieze No. 5, 1994; Michael Schmidt, works from the series “Frauen” (Women), 1997–99. Photo: Gerhard Kassner.

John Coplans and Michael Schmidt

Galerie Nordenhake

The photographic practices of John Coplans and Michael Schmidt have never been juxtaposed in an exhibition before, but the two artists admired each other’s work, and it’s not hard to see why. In the commingled monochrome images in “The Lingering Drama of the Body,” extracted from much larger cycles of work, both artists explore how the human body is imprinted by time. For the British-born Coplans—a founding editor of this magazine as well as an artist, writer, and curator—that meant the aging process. For Schmidt, a long-term chronicler of cultural change in Germany (and in Berlin in particular), it meant the times through which he lived. Here, their practices also cleaved along gender lines. Coplans, we were reminded, spent the two decades until his death in 2003 at the age of eighty-three documenting the entropic sagging of his own bulky body. Schmidt’s photographs, meanwhile, were extracted from “Frauen” (Women), his 1997–99 series focusing on young German women in the run-up to the millennium, at which point he detected a new confidence in German youth, signaled in gestures, stances, and facial expressions. The show’s juxtaposition of an aging, curled-up man with self-assured women became an indirect commentary on the battle of the sexes.

More explicitly, “The Lingering Drama of the Body” presented flesh as a materialist recording device. Schmidt, to create the grids and elliptical constellations of works here, photographed women both clothed and unclothed, so that sometimes skin bears the marks of a recently removed brassiere. But this is a local story told by the body as compared to the larger, sociocultural one reflected in the way most of these women face down the camera and self-assuredly possess space, clothed or not. Whether they fully overturn the male gaze is questionable, but they seem equal partners in the dynamic, assenting to being preserved wearing the crown of youth (and sometimes only that). Youthful, obviously, is the opposite of how Coplans presents himself. In Self Portrait, Crouched, 1990, which abstracts the body Edward Weston style, he bends over, hiding his face, his scrotum poking between his legs. The artist, one realized, has found something new in the endless depiction of the male nude body: the evocation of weakness, which extends to his sometimes slapdash focusing, as seen in the hairy knuckle of Crossed Fingers, No. 3, 1999. 

Schmidt, who died in 2014 at the age of sixty-eight, also gravitated toward imperfection, but of a conversely calculated kind. His cropping can be deliberately off and asymmetric, directing one’s attention to the edges of the frame, where often there’ll be a mole or a slim V of white background between black trouser legs. Such moves make these photographs somewhat slower reads than they first appear; they unfurl in stages. Schmidt (frequently) and Coplans (always) leave their subjects’ heads out of the frame, as if to seek out equivalent expressiveness elsewhere. For both artists, body language was literally that, a way of semaphoring interiority and feeling amid manifest change. Yet both of them, too, suggest a limit to what can be communicated corporeally and how much one photograph can say. When Coplans’s and Schmidt’s subjects are framed as “old man” or “confident young women,” the unique subjectivity inside the body is lost. These figures can be actors in a lingering drama, or they can be individuals, but not both.