This piece appears as part of “BERLIN, BERLIN” — a weekend-long virtual celebration of the city. Head here to see the full series.
Amongst the pages of photographer Michael Schmidt’s seminal book, Waffenruhe — a fragmented psychological portrait of West Berlin shot between 1985 and 1987 — is an image of an outstretched wrist, the camera’s flash igniting a jagged scar across its milky skin. The space opposite is obscured with a blank pull-out page that expands to reveal a tree in full bloom, bright flowers swelling between branches. The Berlin Wall looms in the background, like a shadow sunshine can’t dispel. In Schmidt’s Waffenruhe, life and death cohabitate — existence is hollowed out to its extremes. Four decades after the end of World War II, Waffenruhe (German for “ceasefire”) captured the gloom of a bisected city as it waited for the smoke to clear.
Waffenruhe garnered Schmidt international acclaim at its time of release and was shown during a 1988 group exhibition titled New Photography 4 at New York City’s MoMA. Thirty years later, in 2018, Waffenruhe was republished by Walther Koenig. A major retrospective of his works was shown recently at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin; its next stop is the Jeu De Paume in Paris.
A new generation encountering Schmidt’s work for the first time will have either been too young or not yet born to witness first-hand the desolation he visualised so poetically. But Schmidt’s stark observations don’t discriminate by age or location. In 2021, we helplessly watch the destruction of a global pandemic, where daily life happens almost exclusively in the confines of the four walls of our homes, and hospitals oscillate between a battlefield and a safehouse. An attempted coup on US democracy ordered by its own President threatens to ignite a civil war and further widen the disparities of people who share the same soil. And a catastrophic climate crisis eats away at Earth, its only sign of stopping after it has devoured everything, including mankind. Our future is fight or flight. It is unsurprising then that a younger audience is increasingly finding solace in Schmidt's work. Not because they see themselves wholly reflected in his images, but because they mirror those same feelings of disillusionment and uncertainty.
Michael Schmidt, one of the most outstanding photographers of the 20th century, was born in 1945 in Kreuzberg, Berlin, five months after Germany’s surrender at the end of World War II. Then employed as a police officer, in 1965, at 27 years old, Schmidt taught himself photography. By 1973, he had quit the force and was working as a professional photographer. Early commissions came via Berlin’s district offices and focussed on social issues like working women (Die berufstätige Frau in Kreuzberg, 1975), the citizens of Kreuzberg (Berlin-Kreuzberg, 1969-73), and Wedding (Berlin-Wedding, 1976-78), and people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities (Benachteiligt, 1980). Although successful, these projects were typical of post-war photography — conventions that Schmidt was ready to shake.
Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder (Berlin Kreuzberg. Cityscapes), made between 1981 and 1982, marked a departure hitherto. Turning his camera to Kreuzberg’s young people — his portraits spontaneous and less posed — and its urban landscapes, some reduced to rubble or marked with graffiti, Schmidt strayed from the thematics and linearity of his previous work. His greyscale palette now expressed the complexity of the human experience and the spaces it inhabits. “Gray is the color of differentiation,” he once remarked. “Black and white are two fixed points to the left and to the right. And I was thinking that the world doesn’t define itself in a clear way, but presents itself in a host of nuances.” Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder hinted at what was to come, and, in 1987, Schmidt published Waffenruhe to great international acclaim.
Waffenruhe swerved any explicit documentation of West Berlin’s political stasis for haunting photographs of its dilapidated buildings, unkempt nature, a defaced Swastika, the inside of a watchtower, cityscapes obscured by shadowy figures, and portraits of disillusioned young people. While the wall is occasionally present, its presence is unwavering. Waffenruhe was a collaboration with Einar Schleef, a playwright and theatre director who left East for West Germany in 1976. For his part, Schleef penned the inner thoughts of a divorced man living with his estranged daughter’s rabbit in the now-empty family house. As historian and fellow photographer Janos Frecot writes in the book’s closing pages: “The text itself does not simply tell a story, but instead narrates a finding, a wounding, a consciousness of a dully nagging pain in an apparent stillness: Berlin 1987.” Structured as one long-running paragraph, Schleef’s text cuts through the book’s center, like the wall itself. The lack of white space around the text is oppressive, almost suffocating.
“Michael Schmidt’s raw, harsh, and fragmented photographs of Waffenruhe are less documents of the existing situation at that time than they are creating a certain dark atmosphere, which echoed the ‘no future’-feeling of my generation,” observes Thomas Weski, who was born in Berlin in 1953 and has been the curator of the Michael Schmidt Archive since 2015. “Berlin didn’t seem to have a future at all, and the general feeling we were all in was that there were Years of Lead to come. Michael seemed to have grasped that feeling in his photographs and understood how to formulate this collective uncertainty in his images.”
Although unforeseen at the time, two years after Waffenruhe was published, the Berlin Wall was torn down. For Schmidt’s next book, he explored East and West Germany's reunification in Ein-heit (or U-Ni-Ty) — signaled to in its split title. The country was beginning to heal from its deep and bloody ideological divisions, five decades after the Nazis took power in 1933. Ein-heit, made between 1991 and 1994, surveyed the relationship between the individual and the state, and the grappling of national identity. For the first time in his career, Schmidt moved beyond Berlin and reckoned with Germany’s past and present through found and new photography (around half of the Ein-heit’s 163 images were repurposed from old newspapers, propaganda materials, and magazine clippings).
The first half of the book is laden with found images and iconography steeped in Germany’s collective trauma: traditional interiors and exteriors, soldiers clutching guns, Swastikas, a man raising his hand in a vote, text from the German national anthem. By removing these images from their original context, Schmidt prompts the viewer to negotiate their own meaning from within this jumble of history. Two blank pages mark Ein-heit’s second half. Several photographs of young people and a close up image of a bottle of Valiquid, a drug to treat severe anxiety, feel like a reprieve — as if Germany can finally dare to look to its future in the eyes. A woman and her baby appear in one of the final images of the book.
“Though Michael used a documentary style of photography in these bodies of works, he formulated his artistic perception of the world, and less a pure description of it,” explains Weski. “Michael’s photographs seem to give more options for individual interpretations than those of other photographers. With both (Waffenruhe and Ein-heit), he extends the understanding of documentary in the field of photography.”
Schmidt created work until his passing in 2014 at the age of 68. As an auteur, he controlled, with meticulous detail, everything about his books — from the printing to the typography, the layouts, and the paper used — and was in a constant state of reinvention and innovation. His exhibitions were rarely, if ever, formulaic, and Schmidt often edited his photographs into varying constellations which changed their readings, how people experienced them, and left them open to new interpretations. Few photographers captured the zeitgeist of their time so evocatively as Schmidt did, and a contemporary reading of his incredible oeuvre might bring greater understanding to a world that feels exponentially dystopian.