The German art photographer MICHAEL SCHMIDT died on Saturday. I don’t think any other photographer had a deeper impact on 032c than this grumpy man from Berlin-Kreuzberg. We became obsessed with his work in the late 1990s. His book Waffenruhe (“Truce”) was our de facto bible for trying to understand life in the Berlin Wall city of the 1980s: brutal, unsentimental, and yet… quite romantic. EIN-HEIT (“U-NIT-Y”) is a disturbing and visually complex take on German history.
032c began as a German newspaper fanzine printed in black and red. Back in 2002, after three issues, we became confident enough to approach Schmidt, who had a reputation for not taking fools lightly, about a possible story. I can still remember how our art director Petra Langhammer and I nervously climbed the staircase to his studio and apartment on Wartenburgstr. We were ready to change the format of 032c, do off-set printing on great quality paper, and we wanted to feature published and un-published images of West Berlin in the 1980s. Schmidt liked the idea of being in company with Daido Moriyama, who also contributed to the issue, but above all he seemed to enjoy the fact that two young people were sitting in front of him rattling off his influence in contemporary photography. Today it’s an empty token to suggest that the process is often more interesting than the result, yet in working and discussing the layouts with Schmidt, we probably learned more about precision, proportion, and juxtaposition than ever before. (He was a good teacher, as one of his students, Andreas Gursky, will surely testify.) The color gray was everything to him, as well as the alternative promise to the lies and totalitarianism of black-and-white. 032c‘s aesthetic of “brutal elegance” was distilled from Schmidt’s photography.
It’s easy to become an artist these days—there’s an incredible infrastructure, from art universities to galleries to museums, with money coming at you from all corners if you’re a hot new thing. But three or four decades ago art was not a lifestyle choice, and photography was not considered art. Yet there he was, Michael Schmidt, a true artist. Born in 1945, he taught himself photography, made his living working as a cop, and created an uncompromising body of work in black-and-white photography that focuses on the city he lived in. “Realism consists not in reproducing real things, but in showing how things really are,” Schmidt said. He created his work in solitude, isolated in West Berlin. But it was America who discovered and collected him: in 1987 The Museum of Modern Art exhibited Waffenruhe. Over the last decade, Schmidt’s work has gained significant recognition; just last week he was awarded the Pictet Prize at the Victoria and Albert Museum for his series Lebensmittel.
“How’s the magazine doing? Are sales up?” These were the first questions he’d ask when we’d meet over the years (followed by an inquiry about my partner, my daughter, or life in general). Economic independence equals creative independence, and Schmidt developed his own system for financing his larger series, each of which took several years’ of work that resulted in an exhibition and book. I liked his business attitude.
Michael Schmidt. True Hardcore. One of the most important German photographers. We salute you, Michael.
The following story first appeared in 032c #4, Winter 2002/2003.