Rory MacLean meets Joachim Schmid
Joachim Schmid’s remarkable, individual journey from rural Baden-Württemberg schoolboy to world-renowned visual artist was shaped by spontaneity, intuition, passion and chance. After his conversion at the Moderna Museet, he studied at the Fachhochschule für Gestaltung Schwäbisch Gmünd and then Berlin’s University of the Arts.
‘I didn’t have a plan,’ laughed Schmid, a likeable 58-year-old still enlivened by a child’s curiosity — and thrill — for life. ‘Photography simply caught my interest.’
He began his career as a freelance critic and publisher of Fotokritik, the iconoclastic and provocative magazine that changed West German photography. In it Schmid argued against prevailing, conservative notions of ‘art photography’, favouring instead a broad, encompassing critique of photography as a form of cultural practice. His inspiration was Susan Sontag’s seminal On Photography and the everyday snapshots found in flea markets.
‘I started buying photographs not to accumulate a collection but rather as study material. I wanted to understand why we take photographs. Eventually I had over 100,000 prints which I put in a big, empty room and began to sort. In the process of looking I saw patterns, motifs, themes. The material itself began to pose questions.’
In the found photographs Schmid (who prefers the term ‘adopted photographs’ as in an adopted child who is given a second chance, and in time will take on a life of its own) discovered a common cultural record that was overlooked by museums. His rich and varied collection became the raw material first of Archiv and then Bilder von der Straße.
‘Bilder von der Straße began one day on my walk to work. In the gutter I saw a discarded print. I picked it up, then tossed it away. Ten minutes later I realised it was what I’d been looking for, and I rushed back to retrieve it. Over the next thirty years I collected the photographs that people throw away.’
As most photographs sold at flea markets were two or three generations old, usually disposed of after the death of an elderly family member, Bilder von der Straße brought his work up-to-date. Around the world Schmid collected discarded photographs, including those of lovers after a relationship had soured. ‘Many of those snapshots had been kept in wallets for months or even years, then after the breakup had to be destroyed physically, almost in a ritual manner, often at the very place where the original photograph had been taken. I was fascinated by the energy expended in that process.’
Apart from in Bilder von der Straße, the original print or negative itself was not important to Schmid. His interest in image and context enabled him to move seamlessly into the digital age. For him photographic hosting services such as Flickr and Photobucket are ‘basically used as digital landfills.’
The fundamental richness of Schmid’s photographic raw material – along with his sardonic wit – has derailed any attempt to read his work as pure anthropology or social science. Instead he gives us witty and perceptive insights into our collective fascination with documenting our existence.
At Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2011, Schmid was one of five curators (along with Joan Fontcuberta, Martin Parr, Erik Kessels, and Clément Chéroux) to sign his name to the From Here On manifesto which declared a decisive break in our understanding of photography and what constitutes the photographic as a result of the digital revolution.
Schmid’s recent works includes Other People’s Photographs, which organised images from Flickr like an updated Archiv, and Estrelas amadas. On the finding of elements for Estrelas amadas he said, ‘I knew immediately I’d found treasure. I was in Lisbon and I had some extra hours. Strolling through the city I came across a second-hand book market where I found and bought a series of magazines from the 1950s. Somebody had coloured the lips of all the actresses in the black and white photographs. Imagine the situation, this is Lisbon in the 1950s, close to the end of the world in a closed society, there’s this production of dreams. It’s so transparent in a way, so there was absolutely no question that I would buy those and I would work with them. In a way they have a unique position in the series of works I made because I didn’t see anything like that before.’
He went on, ’I’m actually looking now for things that work in a similar way. …I like it if people work manually on a photograph, but you don’t find many of these. Sometimes you find in snapshot photography, that people add little drawings or description or arrows or whatever, to clarify a photograph or to make fun of it, but it doesn’t happen that often. So that was a pretty unique thing, but it works completely differently than other works. Or let’s say another unique thing was the book L.A. Women. I found those photographs of potential murder victims. As photographs, they are completely uninteresting for the people who don’t know the persons depicted, but if you know the context, where they come from, they just ask shocking questions. Also that is a really unique thing in my series of works, it shows you about the range of possible questions that play a role.’
Joachim Schmid, the accidental artist, added with a laugh, ‘My work is like my entire life, I don’t have a plan. I expose myself to a situation, and see what comes out of it. But in the end I like to think that I have managed to get some of those “everyday” photographs into museums … by the back door.’