Michael Schmidt the German photographer who won the 100,000 Swiss Franc (£67,000) Prix Pictet Photographic Prize, only days ago, has died after an illness. He was honoured at the V&A museum in London on Thursday but unable to accept the award in person.
He won the award for his work Lebensmittel which explores the processes of the European food chain.The honour was awarded by Kofi Annan, Honorary President of Prix Pictet for 2014. Schmidt was was born in Berlin and continued to work in the city until his death last week. He originally studied painting but, in 1963, when he was 18, he joined the police and two years later began to teach himself photography.
Michael Schmidt’s ability to translate apparently contradictory elements of his photography into a valid form puts him in an outstanding position among contemporary photographers. Though he adopts an unusual position with his constantly different approach to photographic and social questions, his innovative project-led working methods and his extreme commitment have made him a model for a generation of young photographers.
Schmidt once called himself a ‘blind alley’ photographer, “ that means that I stroll straight into a cul-de-sac and can’t find a way out. Then I come to terms with this as a sort of condition and at some point later on, I’m back on the outside again. That is to say, failure or making mistakes is an integral part of my way of working.”
Considered one of the finest post-war German photographers, he was known for capturing Berlin’s inhabitants and its concrete landscapes in stark black and white images. The photographer is identifying two essential elements of his work by saying this: he refuses to quote his own work, preferring in each new series and the new pictorial language developed for it to take the risk of failing. And he works in projects, each one over a period of four to five years, which means he is taking a twofold risk: “With a project, the new and surprising thing lies in the drafting and execution of the plans. It is daring, harbours great ambitions, and by no means has at hand all the means and knowledge necessary to complete it. A project is exploratory, forming a coalition with the unknown, and hence it can also fail.”
The photographs themselves seem to belie this almost reckless approach to work: they surprise by being entirely unheroic. In the famous “Waffenruhe” (Truce; 1985-1987) and “EIN-HEIT” (U-NIT-Y) series, both presented as one-man shows in venues including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he mixed his own photographs with photographs by other people, sometimes extensively and without drawing any distinction. In his great photographic essay “EIN-HEIT” about the so-called reunification of Germany he combines historical images from the National Socialist period and the history of the two German states with current city views and portraits cutting across all social strata. Project such as “Frauen” (1997-1999) or “Irgendwo” (2001-2004), even though like all Michael Schmidt’s series they were taken entirely in black and white, are characterized by an almost complete absence of black and white notes: instead we have a wealth of grey tones that looks more realistic that any colour photograph could. Even though Schmidt has made an intensive study of great documentary photographers such as Walker Evans, for example, it is not possible to pin down his style. He sets the realistic against the documentary. He sets subjective treatment of the object against objective treatment, including people as objects. And despite the unmistakably contemporary quality of every project, the different series always convey a historical awareness that is so strong that they point far beyond the moment the shot was taken.
His work is currently exhibited at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum until 14 June.