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Most Extensive Overview of Michael Schmidt's Work to Date at Haus der Kunst
Michael Schmidt, o. T., aus Berlin Wedding, 1976-78 © Michael Schmidt. Courtesy Galerie Nordenhake.

MUNICH.- With the exhibition of photographs by Michael Schmidt, the Haus der Kunst presents another formative position in contemporary photography. Works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, Andreas Gursky and William Eggleston have already been shown as part of this exhibition series.

With 390 original photographs "Grey as Colour" is the most extensive overview of Michael Schmidt’s work to date. A third of the pieces are new works or – like "89/90", which only existed as working proofs until now – have been edited as a series for the exhibit.

On view will be the series Portraits (1970-74); Stadtlandschaft (Urban Landscapes) (1974-75); Berlin Wedding (1976-78); Berlin Wedding. Menschen (Berlin Wedding. People) (1977-78); Berlin, Stadtbilder (Berlin, Urban Images) (1976-80); Innenaufnahmen (Interior Views) (1979-80); Berlin nach 45 (Berlin after 45) (1980); Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) (1985-87); Selbst (Self) (1985-88); 89/90 (1989-90); Architektur (Architecture) (1989-91); Ein-heit (Unity) (1991-94); Ihme-Zentrum (Ihme Center) (1997-98); Frauen (Women); (1997-99); Irgendwo (Somewhere) (2001-04) and Meer (Sea) (2008-09). The series will not be presented chronologically but in a network pattern.

Michael Schmidt has been taking photographs since 1965, analogue and in black-and-white, and with an unusually broad range of grey tones. "For me black and white are always the darkest grey and the lightest grey." (Michael Schmidt 1996). Micheal Schmidt’s images lack all superficial attraction; they are without incident and as far removed from the photographic concept of the decisive moment as possible; they are neither striking nor narrative. For decades Michael Schmidt has abstained from making composition samples that prove to be exceptional single frame images. He prefers the series, in which the artistic expression is not exhausted in the individual image, but in which one image refers to another instead. In each of his series Michael Schmidt is looking for a new point of entry, one that appears to be appropriate for the specific subject matter. This includes the individually designed artist’s book that accompanies the publication of a series. His unusual and thorough production process has made Michael Schmidt an example for the younger generation of photographers.

Until the 1990s Michael Schmidt mainly worked in the city in which he was born in 1945: Berlin. The Wall, which characterized the city and divided her, became a central focus for him in 1987 with his series "Waffenruhe" (Ceasefire). Since the 1990s the radius of Michael Schmidt’s activities has expanded: He photographed in Hannover for his series "Frauen" (Women), and he then created the work group "Irgendwo" (Somewhere), which resulted from journeys through the German province. The newest works in the exhibition are views of the sea.

Portraits of people
People and urban landscapes are the two dominant motifs in the artist’s work. From 1977-78 he created a series of double portraits that depict people both in their place of work and at home; the formal principal of similar situations suggest standardized behaviour: During working hours the portrayed individual sits behind his desk and, in the evenings, on the sofa in his living room. From punk to rocker, from the system analyst to the local politician, the childcare worker or educational psychologist, from the social worker to the lawyer working at the District Office in Wedding or the head of public relations at Schering AG – they all take refuge in a similar position and their particular environment imparts a certain sense of narrowness. The double portraits can be regarded as both a succession of different ways of life, as if he was playing with different identities, and as self-questioning.

The portraits from the 1980s seem to be more spontaneous and to have been created in an almost casual manner. The social and spatial contexts and backgrounds are reduced to details, before which the individual can better unfold. Yet, once again, viewers who look a bit closer sense that the portrayed individuals experience a kind of homelessness in their social environments. Michael Schmidt once described himself as a "photographer of dead ends". Beyond the mere documentation of zeitgeist, fashion and milieu, the photographer’s images of people formulate the desire to blast open the behavioural patterns of their surrounding environment.

Michael Schmidt will be represented at this year’s Berlin Biennale with his series "Frauen" (Women) (1997-99). This series’ models stood in front of the camera either clothed or naked and, without explicitly wishing to stage, attempt to hold their own in the orchestration. Conscious of their exposed state, they repeat a specific repertoire of poses and postures: They place their arms on their hips or across their chests; push their hands in their pockets and turn partially or completely away, revealing only a part of their body. The photographer, though, declares his solidarity with the models’ vulnerability and their lack of practice and ease. The fragmentary perspective allows him to emphasize individual characteristics, thereby measuring anew the distance between such images and the standardized female portraits found in contemporary glossy magazines.

Urban landscapes
For his photographs of urban landscapes Michael Schmidt often chooses in-between places whose architecture is not specifically defined, spaces such as empty lots or open areas. The individual images only provide a limited amount of information about their structural contexts: A centrally placed obstacle impedes a view into the space, or an empty area becomes the work’s focus. The loading ramps, parking spaces, bits of wall, corrugated iron walls, household supply stores, bars with advertisements for Schultheiss beer, and even playgrounds for children: all these places appear to be pieces of locationless utilitarian architecture.

Certain series, for instance "Berlin-Wedding" from 1978, were regarded as documentations of unsuccessful urban planning when they were first published – as if Michael Schmidt wanted to accuse the wretchedness of the tenement blocks, "with which one could kill people as with an axe", as Heinrich Zilles described the "stony" Berlin. When viewed today, however, Michael Schmidt’s images do not convey such an explicit accusation but rather pose the question: What chance does the individual have here? What does a successful way of life in this kind of urban landscape look like? The spaces, areas and highlighted details in these photographs are not a mere representation of reality: they also have the quality of abstract paintings. They allow one to recognize the inwardly directed gaze of the author, who is not just interested in objective documentation, but in the development of an unmistakable individual style as well.

The German unification
In a solo exhibition in 1996 at the MoMA in New York, Michael Schmidt presented the series "Ein-heit" (Un-ity) (1991-1994). The series – a collection of 118 individual images about the German reunification – included not just his own works but also images he had found in magazines, newspapers and propaganda material. In this way he connected individual memories with collective ones, mixed images from East Berlin with ones from West Berlin. Because of an intentional dearth of information provided by the individual image, it is once again impossible to categorise them as belonging to a specific place, moment or political system. Gymnasts forming ornaments, military parades, factory workers, portraits of Göring, Adenauer and Honecker, they are all collectively resulting in one big question: East and West, what was that anyway? The symbolism of political systems and their image of people seem to be universally the same.

Haus der Kunst | Michael Schmidt | "Grey as Colour" |

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