Monday, August 18, 2014

Natur by Michael Schmidt

My review of Natur by Michael Schmidt (Mack, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

As the last book completed by Michael Schmidt before his untimely death this spring, Natur comes to us with an elegiac aura. Sadly, Schmidt passed away right before completing Natur and winning the 2014 Pric Pictet for his previous body of work, Lebensmittel. Compiled from black and white images shot between 1987 and 1997, Natur is a somber collection of details and fragments of nature. The complex and psychologically resonant images of Natur explore the act of looking and the disorderly beauty of the natural world.

Michael Schmidt was always an uncompromising photographer who looked hard at the history and landscape of his native Germany. While Natur lacks the historically dense and evocative tenor of his most widely revered works like Waffenruhe (1987) or EIN-HEIT (1996), it is no less unflinching and suggests a turn inward. Created roughly between Schmidt’s two seminal works, the images of branches, bark, trees and one lone cow seem more like a meditative self-portrait than Schmidt’s other works — a respite from the harsh reality of Berlin and its tortured history. Gone are the Berlin streets and barren lots of his native city, and instead we’re left to wander in the woods, staring at trees and underbrush.

All images © Michael Schmidt and MACK

The book’s layout and sequencing appears somewhat simple at first, but underlying that simplicity is a complex and layered edit. Schmidt has always been an astute editor of his work, both in book and exhibition form. As Peter Galassi recently wrote of EIN-HEIT, “the deliberate, poetic sequence simultaneously evokes the painful complexities of German history after 1933 and interrogates the reader, who is obliged to interpret the uncaptioned images and the implications that arise from the sequence.”* Schmidt often referred to his way of arranging pictures as “1+1=3” — a nod to montage and the complex ways in which still images, once placed together, create a new emotional whole. Rather than relying on dramatic juxtapositions, Natur’s meticulous pacing and sequencing has the subtle effect of drawing the viewer in while also making them acutely aware of both the meditative act of looking through the lens and each image’s relation to the whole. Schmidt achieves this by not only juxtaposing macro and micro images of expansive aerial landscapes and details of tangled bark or branches, but also through the minute variation of paired images. Throughout the book, there are images taken moments apart, where only the angle or distance has changed. The almost repeating images function like breaks in the book’s rhythm, stopping us and revealing the camera and Schmidt’s editorial hand — reminding us that each frame is a decision and variation of countless choices.

All images © Michael Schmidt and MACK
All images © Michael Schmidt and MACK

When Schmidt passed away in May, we lost one of our greatest contemporary photographers. From his work establishing the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography) in 1976 to his powerful and uncompromising work spanning over thirty years, Schmidt left an indelible mark on the medium. Fittingly entitled Natur, Schmidt does not describe a particular place, but offers an analytic and unsentimental study of form — the chaos of nature rendered meaningful in the frame and the cool uniformity of grey. Whether he’s moving closer or stepping back, offering an expansive view or peering in close, Schmidt’s inquisitive eye teases apart the natural world and its many forms, all the while directing our eyes to the act of looking. Elegantly designed and beautifully printed, Natur has unexpected finality, but it’s also a reminder of Schmidt’s gifts as an artist and what we’ve all lost in his passing.