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Berlin Stories

An ostensibly endless front of gray fire walls lines up against a leaden sky. Here and there, crooked antennae stick out from rooftops as if trying to establish some type of contact. The mud of the wasteland in front of them is scored with tire tracks. In the foreground, there’s a street: asphalt skirted by a sidewalk. Yet however stringently these lines divide the picture, there’s little to see. The photograph is part of Berlin nach 45 (Berlin after 45), a series showing West Berlin exactly as empty and dreary as it was when the Berlin-born photographer Michael Schmidt made the body of work between 1978 and 1980. The war was still everywhere—both the Cold one and the war before it, with Nazi Germany against the Allied world. Though every picture he took in his hometown from the mid-1960s until the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, is intrinsically silent, this is no peaceful silence. Schmidt, born in October 1945, five months after the end of the war in Europe, shows West Berlin as a kind of wound—not picturesquely scarred, nor spectacularly gaping, but quietly festering like an infected sore. After 1961, Berlin was a walled city, a concrete island divided into East and West, stuck amid the sealed-off GDR (the former German Democratic Republic) ruled by a socialist dictatorship.

 

Both sides were full of vacant lots, piles of rubble, prefab housing developments, and scrub: a war-damaged, lethargic, dystopian, and isolated city where every view was blocked, every street a dead end. In the 1980s, my parents often drove us down the bumpy transit corridor as we traveled from our home in West Germany through parts of the GDR to reach West Berlin, running the prescribed route’s gauntlet of border-control bullies. Had youtold me then that a few years later I would live in a reunited, open Berlin, I’d have thought you were joking. Back then, the atmosphere was a mixture of menace and apathy, constriction and gigantism, nonchalance and sadness. The wall sent shivers down my spine: sometimes stoically concrete, sometimes bursting with graffiti, it was a physically oppressive symbol of violence. For me, it represented not only my own parents fleeing the marauding Red Army at the end of World War II when they were kids but also my relatives stuck on the East side—traumas that the country still hasn’t processed. This city, I felt, was just craters and concrete. And yet, or perhaps because of this, Berlin exerted a tremendous pull. Schmidt must have felt it too. The divided city was his life’s subject, the essence of everything he wanted his art to express.

 

Schmidt was born and mainly grew up in Kreuzberg, a Berlin district of crumbling buildings and questionable social housing,
of workers and Turkish migrants, and later of punks. Until Schmidt’s death in 2014, Kreuzberg remained his terroir—only Wedding, a district of industrial buildings and tower blocks, was of similar interest to him. An assignment from the local authorities early in his career sent Schmidt to photograph seniors, foreign citizens, and women at work. Schmidt had actually trained to be a police officer and, as he once said, “only changed sides” because, ultimately, “it was all about justice.” And since Schmidt was known to be disarmingly frank, with a Berliner’s gruff wit or, as they call it here, “a bark as big as his heart,” his art was free from voyeurism or romanticization. After learning the basics at the Association for Amateur Photography in 1965, he quickly set out on his own, explaining: “When they photographed rain, it looked like glass beads. When I photographed rain, it looked like rain.”

 

It’s clear that Schmidt didn’t like to curry favor, and his career as a photojournalist failed, possibly because he thought sending
the popular weekly Der Spiegel a roll of film would suffice. And anyway, the student demonstrations of the 1960s, the drug scene
of the ’70s, people with champagne bottles dancing atop the wall on November 9, 1989—none of that interested him as a photographer. While Berlin was writing postwar history, Schmidt wandered through empty backyards, playgrounds, and vacant
lots. He declared garbage, grass, cars, puddles, and parking garages worthy subjects at a time when that sort of thing could only be justified, if at all, as documentary photography. But Schmidt was concerned with more than objectivity. Working with a large-format camera in diffuse light, he developed a unique visual language that combined documentation and abstraction, and the results were just as raw and empathetic as he was. For him, gray not only symbolized Berlin’s hopelessness, it became a personal stance of sorts—a stance against the harshness and certainty of black and white, against good or bad, right or left. In all of his series, which often only appeared in books and exhibitions decades later, Schmidt constantly reinvented himself without giving up the resistance that characterized his work from the start. For him, photography wasn’t a window to the world but a kind of curb that slowed down the view.

 

His first photobook, Berlin Kreuzberg, from 1973, for which Schmidt photographed dirty children, broken façades, and men rummaging through garbage cans, is an early testimony to this approach. Its images resemble the reportages of Paul Strand, Schmidt’s role model when he first took up the camera. In the Berlin: Stadtlandschaft und Menschen (Berlin: Urban Landscape and People, 1972–76) series, Schmidt separated architecture from people: tower blocks, backyards, and train stations look utterly deserted, while the adults and children sitting on a scruffy lawn in Türkische Familie auf dem Kreuzberg (Turkish Family on the Kreuzberg, 1972–76) appear friendly but tired. In the series Berlin- Wedding (1976–78), he went a step further. These are severe, uneventful images of an empty, modern, and damaged urban space. Portrayed within the oppressive architecture of their offices or apartments, the people look like props—all of which now reads like conceptual commentary about being locked up. Playground climbing frames and concrete seating areas echo the monotony of the tower blocks. Again and again, images are cut through by fences, and one phone booth appears four times in a row from different angles.

 

This modus operandi is reminiscent of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who at that same time were documenting the empty industrial architecture of the Ruhr area in westernmost Germany, elevating typologies and series to basic principles of the medium. But unlike those famous colleagues, who paved the way for a new generation of photographers at Düsseldorf ’s academy of art, Schmidt was denied international recognition. In 1979, he came to the Ruhr area as a guest lecturer at the renowned Folkwang school in Essen, where there was an opening in the faculty after the photographer Otto Steinert died. One of Schmidt’s pupils was the Bechers’ future student Andreas Gursky. “Michael Schmidt was intense from the first,” Gursky told me recently. “He immediately established an intimacy, always looked you in the eye. We’d also spend time together in the evenings. He catapulted me out of my comfort zone, never mincing his words. He was a hardcore  Berliner: he’d only seen gray all his life. It was challenging, but he literally woke me up. It’s a shame that he didn’t get a professorship, if only as a counterpoint to the Bechers.”

 

It’s quite possible that Schmidt is so under the radar now because he went back home. In 1976, Schmidt founded the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography) at the adult-education center in Berlin-Kreuzberg, which would run for ten years. It was there, with Schmidt, not someplace such as the city’s Neue Nationalgalerie, that the American photographers William Eggleston and John Gossage first lectured, taught, and showed their work in Germany. Aside from Essen and Düsseldorf, West Berlin was the country’s third big photography hub, though hardly anyone remembers this now.

 

Schmidt may never completely step out of the shadow of the wall, but his reputation is growing. With the intimate pictures
from the Waffenruhe (Ceasefire, 1985–87) series, which the curator Peter Galassi showed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988, Schmidt first received international attention. These are images that are diametrically opposed to any objectivity, though without becoming dramatic either. Schmidt doesn’t give up this position when he shows a speck of dirt on a pane of glass, punks gazing vacantly into the black picture space, the graffitied wall and bridge railing in close-up. Those perennial weeds hog the lens as if to prove that something still thrives in this city of Einstürzende Neubauten’s experimental music and Christiane F.’s teenage drugs and sex, even if it’s just scrub. Sometimes the background is blurred, from something, only to then photograph a pile of dirt in front of a concrete wall. It is these visual barriers, obstructions, and obscurations that make this series a masterpiece of the unspectacular, a metaphor for the hopelessness of youth, a psychogram of the divided city.

 

Schmidt could not have suspected that the wall would fall just two years after he made Waffenruhe. What he did notice, while others lapsed into euphoria, was the friction that the two Germanys’ reunion entailed. With 89/90 (1989–90), Schmidt photographed his first series in East and West Berlin: prefab apartment blocks, a hollowed-out Trabant car, broken guardhouses, an East German police jacket on a tree, the wall, concrete balustrades, an open garbage can (the same one twice), and dilapidated façades that cannot immediately be placed in either part of town. Everything
is brutal and pragmatic; there’s no trace of any magical historical turning point. Instead, there’s Schmidt’s crouched gaze, peeking through holes, passages, fences.

 

In many people’s minds, the wall is somehow still standing. Schmidt must have suspected this would happen when he devoted one more series to Berlin: Ein-heit (U-ni-ty, 1991–94), the title itself suggesting that reunification wasn’t going very smoothly. Though also designed as a book, it was shown at MoMA, in 1996, and at the New Museum, New York, in 2011, but neither presentation worked as well as the one at Haus der Kunst, Munich, in 2010. Hung in one long row at the monumental museum Hitler commissioned as his personal art temple in 1933, Schmidt’s work looks doubly fragile, vulnerable, and lost. The images use the semiotic languages of the different political systems that Germany has lived through: the Nazis’ National Socialism, the GDR’s Socialism, and, now, this freshly reunited democracy. Some images, such as those of people in uniform, are photographs of photographs; others are Schmidt’s own images of burned-out people or partiers with blank faces— a bottle of Valium, a street corner with a hydrant and a plastic bag, and, of course, the wall. Nobody better communicated this divided nation’s scattered life and its citizens’ existential ambient noise than Schmidt.

 

In the end, Schmidt’s importance in the history of photography should also be measured by the generations after him. With their digitally edited and large-scale color photographs, the so-called Becher students—Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Ruff—might be antipodes of sorts. In contrast, younger Berlin artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Tobias Zielony direct their lenses toward the precarious and diffuse as Schmidt did before them. For many of them, he has become a role model, an artist’s artist whose sympathy for the marginalized and whose fondness for the book form more closely correspond to the ephemeral feel of our fragile times than overwhelming formats bursting with color. In fact, in the last few years before his death, Schmidt was more and more associated with the contemporary. The presentation of his work at three biennials—Berlin in 2006 and 2010, Venice in 2013—is proof of how unsettled and relevant his work still is, and of how much its potential remains undiscovered. Schmidt’s first retrospective, late and more than deserved, originated last year in Berlin and travels to Paris, Madrid, and Vienna. It’s regrettable that the exhibition won’t appear stateside. After all, Schmidt learned a lot from the great American photographers. Especially now that we’ve all learned what isolation means, now that we’ve felt the walls inside our heads shoot up faster than the weeds he loved to photograph, this West Berliner can open us up to entirely new perspectives.