Michael Schmidt, Lebensmittel (Food)

Michael Schmidt, From the series,  Lebensmittel, 2006 – 2010

Michael Schmidt is one of Germany’s most important social-documentary photographers. Although he works in series, each photograph stands as an autonomous work in its own right. When the photographs are seen together in a book or an exhibition, connections between two pictures give rise to a third, as Schmidt explained in an interview with Dietmar Elger in his book Irgendwo.

In his Lebensmittel series (2006–10), Schmidt confronts photography with its painterly qualities in 177 photographs. The work’s all-too-perfect patterning makes it look like a naturalistic painting and manifests an immaculate production process. While using the documentary form of investigative journalism, Schmidt succeeds in capturing the social reality, hybridity and poverty of the food industry in a way that is neither accusatory nor dismissive. Schmidt is not concerned with finding a clear, self-sufficient aesthetic form. He opts neither for pure confrontation with the monstrosity of reality, nor for escapist visions based on abstraction. Instead, in his work, the aestheticized landscape becomes a mere region, a building is just architecture, a still life is simply an arrangement of objects.

Schmidt was born in east Berlin, but his family crossed to the west before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. He trained as a policeman, at his parents’ insistence, before taking up the camera in 1965 to document the streets, buildings and people of west Berlin. He later told an interviewer: “I could also make photos somewhere else; I just wouldn’t know why.” Schmidt was self-taught, and his early series, including Stadtlandschaft (Urban Landscapes) (1974-75) and Berlin, Stadtbilder (Berlin, Urban Images) (1976-80) mapped out the city in which he lived in a semi-documentary way. In 1976, he founded the Werkstatt für Fotografie (Workshop for Photography) in Berlin, and invited several leading American photographers, including William Eggleston and John Gossage, to teach there.

In the following decades, his approach became more impressionistic. He would shoot thousands of frames for each project without thinking too much about the end result, which would emerge later out of rigorous editing. Increasingly, he was drawn to series over single images, atmosphere over documentary representation.