A LARGE RETROSPECTIVE of the German photographer Michael Schmidt, curated by Thomas Weski, was held at the Haus der Kunst in Munich during the late spring and summer of 2010. I flew to Munich from Berlin expressly to visit it and am glad I did (in fact, I reviewed it for these pages). Not only was the exhibition a fairly comprehensive survey of the oeuvre of one of the most original contemporary photographers, but it was accompanied by a publication that I might otherwise have missed before it went out of print, as it now appears to have done.
The publication is a photobook called, simply, 89/90. Modest in format, just barely rectangular, it comprises fifty illustrations of black-and-white photographs that are also slightly higher than they are wide, mostly uncropped or trimmed only minutely and arranged over ninety-eight pages including two title pages (one for Schmidt’s name, the other for the title of the book). At the end is a short text in German and English by the then director of the Haus der Kunst, Chris Dercon. For the most part, the images occupy the rectos of the two-page spreads, but there are six instances in which two photographs face each other, and the final image, following Dercon’s remarks, is on the left. The photographs were taken during the autumn and winter of 1989–90, in the shadow of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and were chosen by Schmidt from a far larger number in his personal archive.
Without exception, the photographs are devoid of drama. In only two images are persons to be seen, and in neither are they featured. Although fragments of the wall appear here and there, they are not singled out, and it is impossible for an uninformed viewer to be sure that that is what is depicted. Certainly the demolition of the wall is in no way the subject of the book. Most if not all of the photographs were made in the vicinity of where the wall previously stood, but a non-Berliner wouldn’t know that, either. What is striking, rather, is the extreme reticence of the individual shots, which depict scenes and objects that could not be more nondescript: apartment buildings of a depressing post–World War II modernity, viewed at various distances; rusting scrap metal; a broken chunk of reinforced concrete by the side of a road, its inner armature showing; the shell of a flimsy-looking car, presumably the notorious Trabant, lying on its side; an army jacket on a hanger suspended from a post, itself apparently a stripped tree trunk; battered and graffitied walls; unattractive stretches of bare ground or concrete pavement; a well-bruised, fruit-shaped structure in a sandbox; a modest fountain in a park; an outdoor Ping-Pong table; concrete staircases; a vertical pole with a plant wound around it; a tree against a fence; other trees and foliage, especially in the second half of the book; a huge pile of waste behind a fence and tree; a garbage bin with an open lid; and so on. Here as elsewhere in his work, trees are in effect Schmidt’s heroes, demonstrating how survival is possible in unpropitious circumstances. No surprise, then, that the book’s last shot features a group of trees.
Considered simply in themselves, the photographs may be said to thematize the utter desolation of East Berlin at the moment they were taken, and the harshness of the 1989–90 winter. They also perhaps allude to the mood of numbed uncertainty that followed the first outbursts of euphoria, especially in the East: The contrast between the city’s two cultures was glaring, and the fear on the part of former citizens of the DDR of being swallowed up by their powerful and now triumphant neighbor was entirely too real. All of this sets the stage for Schmidt’s real tour de force: the sequencing of those photographs so as to produce an altogether different experiencea kind of aesthetic elation based on nothing more than one’s turning of the pages from beginning to end.
My problem at this point is how to justify this rather extreme claim, especially in the limited number of words remaining to me. But to offer an example: The first photograph shows in the near foreground a mound of desiccated earth, with two tiny bits of weedlike growth clinging to its surface, and beyond the mound, out of focus, a further stretch of ground with smallish trees, and beyond them, several tall and chillingly undistinguished apartment buildings. The next image moves in on the streaked and battered external concrete staircase of another building, which we see from an angle, a kind of epitome of Brutalist drabness. The third image, of still another apartment building where one would prefer not to live, is angled the other way (we already feel that this matters, on the level of sequence); we are also shown the cement pavement along with a scabrous stretch of “lawn” with low cement planters containing wisps of bushes. Farther on are two pathetic naked trees. The fourth photograph picks up the pavement-plus-scrubby-growth motif with a centered, close-up view of the juncture between two walls, as unphotogenic a subject as could be imagined. The fifth photograph is centered but more spacious, offering a view of bare ground, a graffitied and perhaps derelict concrete tower, and additional unappealing apartment buildings farther away. In none of the photographs thus far is there the least concession to one’s natural desire to view something cheering. But the sixth image, still centered, marks a break: a single-plume fountain in an urban park, with two figures standing and talking near cement benches, trees and (definitely more attractive) apartment houses in the distance. The scene is sunlit and its overall effect is of emotional relief, even pleasure, after the consistent drabness of what has gone before. The seventh image comes as a surprise: a near repeat of the first, from a slightly different vantage point and with the entire photograph in sharp focus. So we are caught in a loop, with no likelihood of escape or transcendence, unless the shift from blurred to sharp focus minimally counts as such.
With this image, Schmidt’s aesthetic intentions become palpable, and we are truly embarked. Before we are done, other images will be repeatedone of them, the garbage bin, on facing pages (reversed, so as to make a symmetrical pair); another, the waste pile/fence/tree, appearing three times toward the end of the book. When we turn the page to the book’s eighth image, we find the uniform jacket hanging from its disconcerting support in a dreary setting, and in extremely sharp focus in contrast to the blurredness of the rest of the scene. (It is also, we should note, another centered motif.) This juncture, this moment in the progressive, quasi-temporal development of Schmidt’s small masterpiece, unmistakably acknowledges the “historic” component of his project. But the internally reflexive character of 89/90, which forces the reader-viewer to consider virtually every parameter of Schmidt’s ostensibly monologic photographs as they simultaneously follow and hark back to one another, turns that history into music. It is a new sort of music, belonging to the medium of the photobook as nothing else.
Michael Fried is J. R. Herbert Boone professor of humanities and the history of art at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.