The Museo Reina Sofía welcomes the first Michael Schmidt (Berlin, 1945–2014) retrospective since the photographer’s death. Schmidt’s work traced the footprints of contemporary society, interleaving snapshots of the urban landscape and its inhabitants, in a career that spanned five decades and made him, with Bernd and Hilla Becher, one of the most influential figures of post-war photography in Germany.
Born at the end of the Second World War in East Berlin, Schmidt fled with his family to West Berlin in 1955, where he would photograph the city’s neighbourhoods in an understated style rooted in American documentary tradition. Self-taught, he began to take photographs in 1965, four years after the Berlin Wall was erected, and in 1976 he participated in founding Werkstatt für Photographie (Photography Workshop), part of the adult education centre Volkshochschule de Kreuzberg, which became a forum of exchange for practices and knowledge among European photographers.
His projects and the relation his photographic work bore to his home town began with the documentary-style neighbourhood series Berlin-Kreuzberg (1969–1973) and Berlin-Wedding (1976–1978), along with Berlin nach 45 (Berlin After ’45, shot in 1980 but not released until 2005). In Waffenruhe (Ceasefire, 1985–1987) Schmidt used the medium as a tool for subjective expression, giving rise to the psychodrama of a still-divided city, at the height of the Cold War, and forming part of a “futureless” generation of Germans. The expressionist immediacy of Waffenruhe led to the denser and more complex and challenging project, Ein-heit (U-ni-ty) [1989-1994], displayed at New York’s MoMA in the first exhibition devoted to the artist in decades.
The photographer’s careful gaze moved away from the city of Berlin in series such as Frauen (Women, 1997-1999) and Irgendwo (Somewhere, 2001–2004), on the German countryside, before veering towards more global concerns in his last project: Lebensmittel (Foodstuff, 2006–2010) [literally, “means for living”), winning him international acclaim and taking him around Europe to photograph the food industry.
Schmidt approached his photographic series by taking into consideration the medium in which they would be presented, regarding them as a whole through installations for exhibition space, or in meticulous photobooks to which he contributed his meticulous artistic vision. This show features around three hundred and fifty portraits, landscapes, still-lifes and cityscapes, setting forth, along with book dummies and archive material, an ensemble of the photographer’s body of work.
Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin: 23 August 2020 – 17 January 2021
Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris: 11 May – 29 August 2021
Albertina Museum, Vienna: 24 March – 12 June 2022
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