The Rebellious Image
Kreuzberg’s "Werkstatt für Photographie" and the Young Folkwang Scene in the 1980s
December 9, 2016 – February 19, 2017
The working-class district of Kreuzberg at the end of the 1970s on the outer edge of West Berlin – and yet the lively center of a unique transatlantic cultural exchange. In the midst of the Cold War, the newly founded Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography) located near Checkpoint Charlie started an artistic "air lift" in the direction of the USA, a democratic field of experimentation beyond traditional education and political and institutional standards. A special artistic approach emerged from a dialog between renowned photographers and amateurs, between conceptual approaches and documentary narrations, between technical mediation and substantive critique and altered the styles of many photographers over time thanks to its direct access to their reality. The Werkstatt für Photographie reached the highest international standing with its intensive mediation work through exhibitions, workshops, lectures, image reviews, discussions and specialized courses.
In 1976, the Berlin-based photographer Michael Schmidt founded the Werkstatt für Photographie at the adult education center in Kreuzberg. Its course orientation with a focus on a substantive examination of contemporary photography was unique and quickly lead to a profound understanding of the medium as an independent art form. When the institution was closed in 1986, it fell into obscurity.
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Werkstatt für Photographie, C/O Berlin, the Museum Folkwang Essen and the Sprengel Museum Hannover are presenting a joint exhibition project, which for the first time portrays the history, influences and effects of this institution and its key players divided between three stages. Furthermore, the three stages outline the situation of a changing medium, which focuses on independent, artistic authorship encouraged by consciousness of American photography. As such, they’re designing a lively and multi-perspective presentation of photography in the 1970s and 1980s that adds an additional chapter to the history of West German photography of the time beyond that of the Düsseldorf School.
C/O Berlin is addressing the history of the Werkstatt für Photographie in its contribution entitled Kreuzberg – Amerika (December 10, 2016 – February 12, 2017). Within the context of adult education, a unique forum for contemporary photography emerged. A special focus is placed on the exhibitions of the American photographers that were often presented in the workshop for the first time and had an enormous effect on the development of artistic photography in Germany. The exhibition combines the works of faculty, students and guests into a transatlantic dialogue.
The Museum Folkwang in Essen is exploring the reflection of the general change of those years in its own Folkwang history with its work entitled The Rebellious Image (December 9, 2016 – February 19, 2017). After the death of the influential photography teacher Otto Steinerts in 1978, a completely open and productive situation of uncertainty reigned. Essen became more and more of a bridgehead for the exchange with Berlin and a point of crystallization for early contemporary photography in the Federal Republic. Along with Michael Schmidt, who made provocative points during his time as a lecturer at the GHS Essen, Ute Eskildsen counted among the key players at Museum Folkwang as a curator. Early photography based in Essen addressed urbanity and youth culture, discovered color as a mode of artistic expression, asked questions following new documentarian approaches, authentic images and attitudes and contrasted the objective distance of the Düsseldorf School with a research-based and subjective view.
The Sprengel Museum Hannover complements both exhibitions with a perspective in which the focus rests on publications, institutions and exhibitions that encouraged the transatlantic exchange starting in the mid 1960s. Using outstanding examples And Suddenly this Expanse (December 11, 2016 – March 19, 2017) tells of the development of the infrastructure that laid the foundation for and accompanied the context of the documentarian approach. The photo magazine Camera also takes on an equally central role as the founding of the first German photo galleries such as Galerie Wilde in Cologne, Lichttropfen in Aachen, Galerie Nagel in Berlin and the Spectrum Photogalerie initiative in Hanover. The documenta 6 from 1977 and the photo magazines that emerged in the 1970s, particularly Camera Austria, have separate chapters devoted to them.
A cooperation between C/O Berlin, Museum Folkwang, Essen, and Sprengel Museum Hannover
Sprengel Museum Hannover
And Suddenly this Expanse
December 11, 2016 – March 19, 2017
Kreuzberg – Amerika
Werkstatt für Photographie 1976–86
December 10, 2016 – February 12, 2017
For the exhibition Koenig Books is offering the joint publication "Werkstatt für Photographie 1976 – 1986".
Michael Schmidt (1945–2014)
GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHER MICHAEL SCHMIDT died on May 24, 2014 after a long illness. He will be remembered by his friends for his great warmth and loyalty, as well as for his uncompromising honesty and utter lack of sentimentality. “Life is not a holiday,” he liked to say. He was a very serious guy, but he had a robust sense of humor—a big smile and even bigger laugh. He will also be remembered by his peers for his dedication to his work and to theirs, and for his affecting brand of high ambition stripped of the even slightest pretense. “I am the best photographer in the Wartenburgstrasse” was another refrain, and nothing pleased him more than a strong new body of work made by a friend.
Schmidt will be remembered above all for photographs and books rooted in his native Berlin. He was born there in October 1945, just shy of five months after the end of the war in Europe. “The pre-natal period was very important,” he insisted. So, too, was the location. He was born in what would become West Berlin, but when he was a child his family lived in the East for several years before fleeing back to the West. Schmidt started out as a cop (it’s what his parents wanted) and learned photography on his own in his early twenties. In 1969 he began teaching photography at the Volkshochschule (adult education center) in his neighborhood of Kreuzberg, and at the center in 1976 he founded the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography).
That same year, Bernd Becher was appointed professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, which dwarfed the Workshop in scale and prestige, and the art world soon became obsessed with photographic doings in Düsseldorf. But during Schmidt’s five years of involvement with the Workshop it was a beehive of impressive visits and/or exhibitions by the likes of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Larry Clark, William Eggleston, John Gossage, and Stephen Shore. It is extraordinary that a neighborhood community center was among the first and most active institutions in Europe to embrace the vitality of postwar American photography.
Meanwhile, Schmidt in his own work was applying the lessons of American work to his deeply personal experience of his battered and divided hometown. His early books were devoted to the Berlin neighborhoods of Kreuzberg (1973) and Wedding (1978) and to the city and its inhabitants more broadly (Berlin: Stadtlandschaft und Menschen, 1978). The photographs are as brittle and unadorned as Robert Adams’s early pictures—minus the bracing sunshine of the American Southwest—and the new buildings seem just as grim as the city’s nasty scars. The pictures nonetheless convey familiarity and affection—and a weighty regard for the inhabitants.
Berlin nach 45 (Berlin since 45), the strongest of Schmidt’s early series, was photographed in 1980 but not published until 2005. Pristine pictures devoid of people survey a cityscape whose bombed-out lots remained barren after the Wall went up in 1961. Here, Schmidt’s steady gaze often met the blank firewalls of buildings that were half their former selves, and the stripped severity of the photographs slices like a sharp knife. Despite the nominal reserve of the images, Schmidt’s emotion enters our hearts through our eyes, as it would again in a series titled Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) that he began in 1985 and published in ’87. Here, reserve gave way to high pictorial drama: Extreme details, croppings, overlappings, disparities of focus, and somber tones transform drab and ugly patches of the city into monuments of funereal pain. And though many of the pictures are fragmentary, murky and cryptic—as if it hurt Schmidt to look—there’s no question that the main subject is the Berlin Wall.
The stylistic evolution of Schmidt’s work from the early ’70s to the mid ’80s was remarkable. Perhaps still more remarkable was the passage that led from the expressionist immediacy of Waffenruhe to the dense, complex, and demanding Ein-heit of 1996. The single German word broken in half signalled Schmidt’s skepticism toward Germany’s euphoric rush to reunification in 1990—a message unfortunately diluted by the English title U-ni-ty. About half of the book’s 163 photographs are by Schmidt; the rest are his photographic copies, often decisively cropped, of images from newspapers, magazines, propaganda magazines, and the like. 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. Among photobooks, Ein-heit is at once the most creative response to Walker Evans’s American Photographs since Robert Frank’s The Americans and a wily embodiment of postmodern sophistication.
After Ein-heit, Schmidt stopped photographing in Berlin. He went on to complete valuable projects on women (Frauen, 2000), provincial Germany (Irgendwo, 2005), and the food industry (Lebensmittel, 2012, for which he was awarded the Prix Pictet three days before he died). But his most important and lasting legacy is his sustained, artistically vital, and deeply moving engagement with his native city.
Peter Galassi is a scholar and curator whose principal fields are photography and nineteenth-century French art.