The majority of Joachim Schmid’s practice involves gathering and re-presenting photographs taken by an anonymous public. He describes himself variously as curator, editor and artist – it could be argued that each of these titles is factually correct, however, his work has a strong conceptual underpinning with recurring concerns about the value of photography as a cultural practice, particularly the role played by the photograph in everyday life. The images he collects/repurposes/finds are often intentionally discarded by their creators – by repurposing them Schmid is creating what he describes as an ‘anti-museum’ where assumptions of photographic worth are questioned. As Heffley describes:
“By gathering the world’s photographic rejects and mounting them on gallery walls, Schmid’s work asks us to reconsider the so-called photographic canon, which depends on weighty notions of history, authenticity, and authorship.”Heffley (S.D.)
Joan Fontcuberta, in his essay ‘Archive Noises’, explains that Schmid’s work is concerned with “visual ecology” – in a world where we are supersaturated by images, the abundance of which leaves us confused:
“Schmid cancels the value of production (taking pictures) and shifts it to selection, to the act of pointing and choosing.”(Fontcuberta, 2014: 172)
Fontcuberta also has this to say about Schmid’s practice:
“[it] has its origins in the idea that excess, waste and rubbish are paradigmatic effects of late capitalism. His projects espouse a kind of photographic ecology, but they are also concerned with the values of the creative experience itself: accumulation, chance, authorship, quality and originality.”(Caspar, S.D.)
Schmid himself says this about this practice:
“I’ve been working with found/appropriated imagery because I think that basically everything in the world has now been photographed in every possible way. We have an incredible amount of pictures after a hundred years of industrialised image-making, so making more pictures is no longer a creative challenge. Nevertheless this production of photographs, of images, goes on: photographs will always be produced. It’s not so much the production of photographs which needs to concern us, but the use of them.”(Fontcuberta, 2014: 172)
Heffley quotes a section for a manifesto that was co-authored by Schmid for the 2011 exhibition ‘From Here On’ which gives an insight into both his philosophy and thoughts about the very modern problem of image overload that I find compelling:
“Now, we’re a species of editors. We all recycle, clip and cut, remix and upload. We can make images do anything. All we need is an eye, a brain, a camera, a phone, a laptop, a scanner, a point of view. And when we’re not editing, we’re making. We’re making more than ever because our resources are limitless and the possibilities endless.”(Heffley, (S.D.)
I must admit my initial thoughts were that Schmid’s practice was something of an intellectual exercise rather than anything that I would find interesting – in fact, the concept of simply collecting photographs from different sources seemed quite boring. I quickly realised that this unfounded preconception was completely wrong and the many ways Schmid has developed his core idea, pushing the limits and developing all the time is both inspiring and thought provoking. The work has strong theoretical underpinning and is rigorously formed, but most importantly, there is a sense of play and joy in the work. Schmid’s character is all over each project – the most significant parts of my research have been listening to him talk about his work – his enthusiasm is infectious.
Pictures from the street (1982-1999):
This series is made up of photographs Schmid found discarded in the street. The mystery of why the pictures were discarded is what makes the series compelling as it is left to the audience to complete the stories that could accompany them. The physical nature of the pictures is also significant with some being scratched and worn, others ripped or defaced. The photographs are catalogued by number (there are 1000 in the series), date and location found in a way that gives the series connotations of an anthropological or scientific study. The series eventually came to a natural end as digital photography meant people were no longer printing photographs so there were simply less to be found. Schmid says this about the project:
“Most of these pictures are intentionally discarded, many are ripped up. It’s exactly the opposite of a museum collection that is meant to preserve the finest samples of our culture for future generations. These pictures from the street must be so bad and disturbing that they were not meant to have any future at all. My project foils this plot, and I guess eventually it will end up complementing a museum collection. It’s the missing piece.”(Shore, 2014: 22)
Cotton (2014: 213) says this:
“By being discarded, the photographs represent the loss of personal memories and also their active rejection. These differing processes of archive-construction emphasise that what is being retrieved from the pictures is their status as evidence; that the contiguity between image and object can be shaped to create a re-engagement with forgotten histories and also projected fantasies of their historical and emotional resonance.”
Archiv develops the strategy of Pictures from the street to include anonymous snapshots and commercial photographs classified by generic type and shared aesthetic characteristics. Heffley describes the project, which is presented in groups, carefully mounted on panels as “a visual taxonomy of the mundane.”
“No attempt is made to ‘interpret’ beyond the acts of gathering and collating. Viewers are invited to manoeuvre between contemplating the images individually or as whole arrangements. Despite the uniqueness of each image what emerges is the systematic, serial nature of photography in mass culture.”Campany (2013: 63)
Fontcuberta (2014: 175-6) believes Schmid’s use of a classification style that evokes the thematic cataloguing of archives is a satirical exercise which also mocks the pretensions of the Dusseldorf school.
This series, made in collaboration with Adib Fricke, is described on Schmid’s website as “an ironic comment on the accidental nature of photography.” Looking at anonymous snapshots found in fleamarkets, Schmid and Fricke occasionally came across photographs that bore resemblance to the ‘unmistakable work’ of great masters such as Ansel Adams and Eugene Atget. These were presented as if they were images by the photographers themselves along with an essay attributed to photo-historian Helmut Gernsheim included to add authenticity.
The timing of this series is significant because 1989 marked both the 150th anniversary of the birth of photography and was also a time it had become accepted into the art market. This acceptance relied on academic historiography which categorised photography in terms of authorship and canon while classifying photographs as both commodity and collectors item. By selecting anonymous amateur snapshots and suggesting a false authorship, Fricke and Schmid directly critique the way value, or worthlessness, is invested in photography.
The R. Flick Collection (2017) is the digital sequel to ‘Masterpieces of Photography’ with the same concept being applied to images appropriated from the internet.
In 1990 Schmid invented the Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs (IRUP) – an imaginary organisation that claimed old photographs were both a health and environmental risk and offered to recycle them free of charge. He placed ads in the press and was surprised by how seriously the concept was taken – masses of what they deemed to be useless photographs were sent to him which then formed the basis for further projects. (For example, Photogenic Drafts, and Statics)
Photogenic Drafts (1991):
This series was made out of photographs sent to the IRUP. A professional portrait studio sent masses of medium format studio portraits, however, each was cut in half to prevent their reuse. Undeterred, Schmid brings together two different images in this series to create new images that interesting juxtapositions between each side – young and old, male and female are presented together as collages that are quirky, humorous and also disturbing. The images succeed because the posing and lighting techniques used by the studio allow the images to be combined together in new, interesting and unintended ways.
Statics was a conceptual and aesthetic departure for Schmid and is the response to feeling overwhelmed by the volume of images that were sent to him via the IRUP. Up until this point Schmid believed that all photographic images could be recycled in one way or another, indeed his practice up until this point was entirely based on this assumption. Now, faced with piles of photographs that could be measured in weight rather than counted, he faced the realisation that many of them were useless. Rather than throw them in the bin however, he took the radical step of using an industrial shredder to cut the images before carefully reassembling them – a process which is both an act of destruction and transformation. He describes the resulting strips as “white noise” (Shore, 2014: 22) which seems an appropriate description both about the images themselves and of the overwhelming feeling that Schmid faced.
Fontcuberta likens Statics to a parody of what it is like to watch an encoded TV channel without the right decoder:
“The fog, the noise and the parasites that cloud the clarity of the communication here become signals that reveal the disruptions of knowledge and memory. Statics can thus be read as a commentary on the archive in terms of loss: it confronts us with a dialectic between documentation and experimentation, or between memory and forgetting. It also confronts us with the institutional mandates that are established in the archive and the museum.”(Fontcuberta, 2014: 178)
Photographic garbage survey project (1996-7):
This project sees the Schmid’s concept of the ‘anti-museum’, as well as ideas from his earlier projects, developed into what Heffley describes as “an urban archaeology circumscribed by the conditions of a specific place and time.” Over two years Schmid meticulously explored preplanned routes around seven cities, collecting, preserving and documenting every piece of photographic garbage he found. The objects were exhibited alongside maps showing the route and statistical data such as type and condition of the photographs found.
Other people’s photographs (2008-2011):
This series sees Schmid embracing the change that digital technology had made to amateur photography – rather than finding his source material discarded or in flea markets, they are taken from photo sharing sites such as Flickr. The images are arranged in a quasi-encyclopaedic way as 96 print on demand books based around themes that Schmid observed as recurring motifs in the images he looked at. (For example – food, self, sunsets.) Not only did the advent of digital photo sharing make this project possible, but the development of print on demand technology made the output of the work as individual books possible.
Boothroyd observes that Schmid’s thematic curation of these photographs is a critical look at our relationship with photography and how we continually repeat ourselves by taking the same images. Responding to this question, Schmid states:
“They work. We know that raising kids is not a bed of roses but if you look at the photos people take of their kids the world is just fine. Not much crying, no diapers, no throwing up, no measles. That’s what people want. A happy marriage but no divorce. One of three marriages does end in divorce in modern society but this is not reflected in popular photography. People will rather try a second marriage than a new approach to photography. I guess it’s more comfortable to base your life on the assumption that things will be all right. Living with the idea that things may well go wrong is closer to reality but not very popular.”(Boothroyd, 2013)
Digital photography and photo sharing also represents a number of key changes to analogue photography. Previously, the images Schmid collected were mainly vintage, particularly those from fleamarkets which were often sold after the owner had passed away. Now, the images he selects are up to date and contemporary. The lack of cost involved in making digital images is also a factor, and an explanation for the growth in unusual genres – for example, the trend in food photography. In typically dry fashion, Schmid notes that many of the images he sees online would have made excellent conceptual projects in the 1980s. Batchen makes this observation:
“Here on Flickr, through the mediating agency of Schmid’s hunting and gathering, we get to see the art world, which once upon a time mimicked this aspect aspect of so-called snapshot aesthetic, now having that mimicry copied and reabsorbed back into vernacular practice. It seems the analog snapshot is indeed remembered in digital form, but only via a historic artistic mediator.”(Batchen, 2013)
Estrelas amadas/Beloved stars (2013):
The images for this series were found by Schmid in a set magazines from the 1950s bought at a Portuguese flea market. The black and white images of actors within have their lips coloured red by the former owner. Schmid seed the act of a young woman dreaming with a colour pencil in hand despite growing up in a poor country under a dictatorship as inspirational:
“I am not very interested in the fact that these interventions are non-photographic, and I am not very interested in the photographs themselves…The personal use of these photographs makes them so special, and the fact that the alterations are so meticulous in this absolutely stunning red…I love it if people do something with photos, draw or paint over them, make collages, add writing or whatever…It’s just a pity people don’t do it more often.”(Shore, 2014: 22)
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