Another Brick in the Wall – Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe

Wer Bunker baut, wirf bomben’ (Those who build bunkers, also make bombs)               Berlin graffito

You can’t get lost in Berlin; you always end up at the Wall.’         Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire (1987)

For the serious photographer with a confirmed belief in the artistic worth of ‘straight’ photography – the so-called ‘poetic documentary’ mode – these are trying times. More than ever, most of the world seems to think that the simple photograph is not enough. The photographic artist who still stubbornly works within the broad tradition of Atget or Weston, even Frank or Friedlander, is deemed wilfully anachronistic, a member of a mutated, almost extinct species.

The straight photographer certainly is an endangered species. Reviled either openly or covertly, and frequently passed over in favour of those utilising the medium for conspicuously more grandiose ends. These days, the straight photographer’s nominally modest, ‘unambitious’ tend to be swamped by the serried ranks of vainglorious photofabrications and moronic pieces of minimalist conceptualism masquerading as the ‘real thing.’ For example, in a recent exhibition shown in France and England, Another Objectivity, the work of the American ‘New Topographer’ Robert Adams – relatively smallscale, subtle, complex – looked like a fish out of water amidst the welter of overblown, vacuous variations on undergraduate themes that were purporting to make us ponder issues of ‘art’, ‘culture’, and ‘representation.’ Adams – unfashionably, daringly – seemed more concerned with life than with art.

Of course, I an deliberately oversimplifying the issue. I also wish that is were unnecessary to take such a reactionary tack, but I feel that a little revisionism is in order. An artist’ medium should not be the ground for value judgements and ideological conflict. The art, yes – the medium itself, no. Yet that is precisely what has happened, and what is happening with photography. Certain ideological applications of photographic processes, namely, where the primacy of the photograph is denigrated and challenged, are held to be superior to the documentary utilisation of the medium. The photo-hybrid – photopainting, photosculpture, the ubiquitous conceptual photo ‘piece’ – is seen as the only valid notional approach. There are signs of active discrimination against the straight photograph and the plainly veristic practice from both within and without the photographic enclave.

Yet, so many of those seeking to ‘extend the boundaries of the medium’, and refute the ‘hegemony of the documentary’, are fooling themselves. Whether deliberately or unknowingly (often the latter I suspect), they would seek to deny photography’s salient strengths and replace them with a diluted academicism. Much of what they trot forth as shining examples of the medium’s cutting edge are simply tired old ideas (intellectually kosher ideas, to be sure) wrapped in glossy new packages and bound with accompanying rhetoric. Invariably – lots of rhetoric.

I write this rather bitter preamble by way of a new book by one of Germany’s leading photographer – Michael Schmidt. I have been cheered immensely by the appearance of Waffenruhe (Ceasefire), and hope that it might rekindle the spirit in any straight photographer whose faith might be waning. For Schmidt confirms that photography certainly can be enough, a medium rich in allusion, visual surprise, and narrative quality when utilised by an intelligent mind’s eye. Furthermore, Waffenruhe reiterates a fact that has long seemed blindingly apparent to the more discerning photographer, that photographs must be put together like words, or individual movie frames, in order to sing their full song. It advocates persuasively that the most effective form of presentation for the straight photograph is probably the book. A vessel for the poetically juxtaposed sequence of images, the book becomes the primary artwork, rather then the necessarily less concentrated row of prints on a gallery wall.

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A few years ago, a friend of mine visited West Berlin on business. She was a senior consultant on Third World health education, and had confronted some extremely deprived areas of this planet. But two days in Berlin shocked her almost beyond rationality.

On the afternoon of her departure, her host, a leading light in West German aid agency circles, had lunched in one of the city’s most expensive restaurants. (An irony to which she had become inured, if not exactly reconciled). Then, on the drive out to Tegel Airport, he suggested, without prior explanation, the diversion which was to haunt her for some time to come. My friend was taken to Plötzensee, to the memorial which commemorates underground German resistance to the Nazis. There, in the old Plötzensee Prison, she was shown the chamber where more than one hundred implicated in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler were executed, some hung from meat hooks with piano wire, their death agonies obscenely filmed for the Führer’s delectation.

Why was this such a trauma for my friend? She was a sensible, mature woman-of-the-world, all too familiar with the residual miseries of power politics and the ideological injustices of the African continent. She was aware, and even annoyed at her host’s clumsy attempt to manipulate her sentiments in a probable attempt to assuage some of his own guilt. However, it was not simply Plötzensee, she felt, but the city of Berlin. There, I suspect, she felt the full weight of 20th century history upon her, for the first time. She felt both humbled and angry at this graphic demonstration of the awesome legacy bequeathed daily by our modern, so-called civilisation.

One cannot escape that in the divided city, even if one tries to ignore it. And it absolutely pervades the sense of Michael Schmidt’s book. The work’s very title, Waffenruhe – ‘ceasefire’, or literally, ‘fighting peace’ – implies an uneasy dichotomy, an unreal state of temporal stasis. And which sums up the sense of crazy unreality which characterises Berlin. The city is a living museum of 20th century history. It is a memorial, an island stopped in time while the rest of the world moves on – still occupied by foreign troops, still ostensibly on a war footing. Despite the modernist architecture, the forced gaiety, the punks, and the vibrant art scene, the city remains locked in 1945. If there were signs, hopes of escaping from that awful time warp, they were dashed around 1960. With Die Mauer (the Wall), Herr Ulricht, that model of a determined, implacable socialist leader, ensured that the spectre of Hitler remains hanging over the city like a dank, grey mist.

The swastika, Schmidt reminds us in one grim image, merely lies dormant, retaining remnants of potency despite surface decay. Nazism flourishes under different guises. What in another picture might be a grainy momento mori of an Auschwitz or Belsen victim turns out to be a much more recent newspaper image of a would-be escapee over the Wall. He was shot and left bleeding at the foot of the Wall, out of reach of the West, abandoned by an unfeeling Eastern bureaucracy until only a mortician was required to affect retrieval.

As may be determined by such imagery, the tone of Schmidt’s book is gloomily romantic, shifting, autumnal, dark. He uses not only the objective materiality of the traditional social documentary/landscape mode, but a distinctly eighties, updated picturesque miasma. He employs differential focus and distortions of scale to dissolve material forms. Berlin is viewed through a despondent veil, an incessant wintery drizzle.

Only the Wall remains solid and potentially enduring – a symbol of entrapment, certainly, but in this city of contradictions, perhaps also a symbol of the ultimate Schopenhaueran escape. The dying escaper portends this, followed later by a closeup of the slashed wrist of one of the photographer’s daughters. Then, almost two-thirds of the way through the book – the usual point of climax in sonata musical form, brought to its highest pitch in German culture – stand the two sharpest, most material, least evanescent images in the work. The first shows the damp, dark soil covering the base of a concrete wall (the Wall?). The second shows the structure itself, an awkwardly placed row of upright precast concrete panels, their serried ranks, along with the freshly turned earth making the obvious metaphor, but making it tellingly, poetically.

There are those, particularly his fellow countrymen I would guess, who might contend that Schmidt does make the metaphors crashingly obvious, and that we have seen all this before. Trees bandaged, tree trunks displaying ominous, numbered ‘armbands’, for instance, are not exactly subtle. Is Schmidt merely exhibiting more of that ponderous, mordant, sentimental, chronically Teutonic self-pity? ‘Wie dunkel is das Leben’ (How dark is life), and that sort of thing? Is he simply scratching at ground more spectacularly and thoroughly tilled by major league members of the School of Germanic breastbeating – most notably Anselm Kiefer?

I think not. Schmidt’s theme is not German art, or German mythology, German guilt and German reconciliation. The metaphors might be there, but much more pertinently, so is the stuff of life. Not, let it be said, ‘reality’, but life, experience, caught on the wing, or rather, on the ground and moulded into a cogent, poetic entity. Working with familiar themes – decaying nature and ruinous man – and decidedly unexotic material, Michael Schmidt has created a fetid poetry and an introspective gloom. This derives formally from the likes of Lewis Baltz and John Gossage – especially Gossage – but exudes a rhapsodic intensity of its own that marks it immediately as a European appropriation of an American vocabulary.

Certainly, the pain and sense of loss running through the whole book like a subliminal subtext would seem to be as much personal as historical, as eschatological as phenomenal, as much diary as report. Waffenruhe is a subjective, deeply felt work, elegiac and bitter by turns. This is confirmed by the book’s oblique, stream-of-consciousness text, and the bleak portraits of the photographer’s daughters, even of himself in the final frame, the very picture of a somewhat inebriated, German Dylan Thomas, and sharing that artist’s acute sense of the poetry of things, the fresh slant upon the apparently simple and obvious. As Janos Frecot writes in his brief afterword, Waffenruhe is not directly a book about Berlin, but a book that could have only been inspired by Berlin, a cri-de-coeur that could have emanated only from a Berliner.

 from Creative Camera (1987)