When one thinks of German photography, it is more often than not of the Düsseldorf school and its leading figures: Bernd and Hilla Becher. For its reopening after both the pandemic and months of renovation work, the Jeu de Paume reminds us that there is a different German perspective by turning the spotlight on Michael Schmidt, a “photographer who is too little known,” as Quentin Bajac, the director of the Parisian institution, puts it. Over the course of a career that spanned five decades, Michael Schmidt became one of the masters of the medium across the Rhine and the first German in decades to be the subject, in 1996, of a solo exhibition at MoMA. This first Parisian retrospective of his work retraces the journey of this self-taught artist who died in 2014.
As one make one’s way through the different spaces and series of the exhibit, one can’t help admire the way in which Michael Schmidt was constantly reinventing his gaze. “Every time he finished a series, he went through periods of turmoil where he looked for new ways to approach reality,” recalls Thomas Weski, the curator of the exhibition. “He described himself as a “dead-end photographer” who would get into one lane and needed a long time to get out of it. “
The retrospective opens with his first photos, taken while he was still a gendarme. This was in the mid-1960s, in West Berlin, his hometown and the city that would remain at the heart of his work until Reunification. Using a documentary style, Michael Schmidt captures a city still marked by war, as well as the lives of his fellow citizens, as in the series of 28 photos that retraces the day of two working women, one a doctor, the other a worker.
“At the end of the 1970s, with the series ‘Berlin-Wedding’, Michael Schmidt imposed a very rigid set of rules on himself in order to achieve a form of neutrality, if such a thing is possible,” analyzes Thomas Weski. “He later said he felt like he had pushed himself into a corner with these rules, and in the early 1980s he struggled to relax them. He went back to shooting spontaneously, camera in hand and no longer on a tripod. This led to “Waffenruhe [Ceasefire],” where he broke free from those rules. It became less a question of delivering a precise description than of communicating a feeling.” The series depicts a fragmented universe where the photos are like so many shards of reality. This impression of fragmentation is found in some of his later work, such as “Ein-heit [Uni-ty],” produced after the fall of the Wall. These series present a mixture of portraits, still lifes and landscapes. “Man is at the center of the environment. He is shaped by it and he shapes it,” explains Michael Schmidt. “As such, I don’t want to show him isolated, but in his environment, I want to show how he lives, where he works, what he does in his free time.”
His last series, “Lebensmittel [Foodstuff],” explores another aspect of human beings: their diet. In his sixties, Michael Schmidt once again reinvented his approach by using color for the first time. This series earned him the Pictet Prize in 2014, three days before he passed away, the only honor he received during his lifetime.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
“Michael Schmidt – A New German Perspective” at the Jeu de Paume in Paris through August 29, 2021. The exhibition will then travel to the Reina Sofia in Madrid, from September 21 to February 2022, then to the Albertina Museum in Vienna, from March 24, 2022 to June 12, 2022.