Quiet observer renders life in grayish hues

In a large photographic exhibition held in London’s Tate Modern last year and titled «Cruel and Tender,» images covering the entire 20th century were brought together to explore the medium of documentary photography. The exhibition asked how photographers who have had a strong impact on 20th century photography – artists from Paul and August Strand to Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Rineke Dijkstra – have depicted reality in their work. By reaching right into the present, «Cruel and Tender» helped pose current questions that seem most pertinent in this image-saturated world: At a time when everything exists to be photographed, how does a photographer turn his subject into an image that offers an interesting viewpoint on our world? This is the kind of question that the one-man show on the well-known German photographer Michael Schmidt, held at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery, poses. Schmidt is, in fact, one of the few German photographers whose work was shown in the Tate exhibition and, more recently, was included, along with Gursky and Struth, as the third German photographer presented at MoMA’s big reopening exhibition. He is also the only German photographer, besides Gursky, to have had a solo exhibition at the MoMA, a fact that attests to his reputation, one that has been especially pronounced during the past decade. It is perhaps Schmidt’s distinctive style, his detached and observational eye, his descriptive and analytical view of reality that have accorded him this artistic status. Or maybe it is his insistence on photographing a specific subject matter – in this case, documenting the urban landscape of his own city of Berlin – or even his fixation on black-and-white photography printed in small size. Either way, Schmidt’s work is not necessarily of the kind that instantly captivates you. It grows on you slowly and gradually, but is too detached, and at times too tough, to lure the senses or draw you in. Trained as a policeman, Michael Schmidt turned gradually to self-taught photography in the 1960s. (He later became a teacher of Andreas Gursky, another seminal figure in German photography.) Dating from the mid-1970s, his early works are images of Berlin rendered in an almost topographical style. Other images of Berlin imply the social and the historical: An image that is included in the exhibition and shows three young, probably Turkish, immigrants is an example. The exhibition at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery begins from those early Berlin images but also expands to the present to reveal the full scope of the artist’s work. It includes Schimidt’s black-and-white portraits of women (another typical subject in his work), cropped close-ups of either clothed or nude female figures; home interiors and a series of landscapes. Of all, the images of nature are perhaps the most soothing and the most like paintings. Their strong contrast with the harsher, rather gloomy urban settings provides an indication of the artist’s range. In a strange way, the close-ups of the human figure can also be seen as landscapes. The skin’s blemishes and texture and the body’s shapes acquire a significance of their own, an almost abstract quality that isolates the image’s form from its content. This element of detachment is in fact one of the most potent aspects of Schmidt’s work. Susan Sontag once argued that photography is an innately surreal art because it compels us to recognize the strangeness of familiar things. Changed somewhat, this argument may also apply to the work of Michael Schmidt. His photographs seem ordinary, even prosaic at times and for that reason, perhaps, begin to look rather strange. Schmidt’s photographs have nothing sensational or contrived about them. They seldom describe a story or capture any kind of action. Presented in grayish hues and small formats, they are more like quiet observations of our surroundings, distanced yet not unemotional. Schmidt’s objective view of the world describes a reality that seems both «cruel and tender,» a reality that has nothing astonishing about it but becomes worthy of documentation perhaps for that reason alone. Michael Schmidt at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery, 5-7 Mitseon, 210.924.4271, through November 30.