Photography Pioneer

When Shades Of Grey Are Beautiful

  • Facts


    • Berlin-based photographer Michael Schmidt founded the Werkstatt der Photographie, or Workshop for Photography, in September 1976. At that time none of Berlin’s universities or academies offered a degree in photography.
    • Some of the best known art photographers in the world visited the Werkstatt, teaching and giving lectures. This included the likes of Larry Clark, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank.
    • This month, Mr. Schmidt’s work will feature in three German exhibitions simultaneously, with shows in Hanover, Essen and Berlin.
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A portrait by Michael Schmidt from 1983. Source: Stiftung für Fotografie und Medienkunst, Archiv Michael Schmidt

In Berlin, winters last six to eight months. The sun rises and then seems to set again almost immediately, or it’s not seen for weeks. City dwellers’ faces take on the color of raw concrete.

Only Berlin in the 70s and 80s boasted more gray, and that was not just in the Soviet-era east but also in the more-colorful west. Michael Schmidt, who was born in Berlin in 1945 and died there in 2014, provided photographic proof of that. The man with such a wonderfully average name was the grand master of gray. He first earned his living as a police officer, but then one day found himself with a camera in hand. Photography became the self-taught professional’s calling. From then on, Mr. Schmidt walked around his neighborhood with a camera. When developing his photos, he decided to forego the kind of color enhancement popular then, dialing out not just color but also harsh contrasts, bright whites and the darkest blacks.

He portrayed his city as realistically as possible, whether his viewfinder was trained on a long-haired social worker in her office or an empty street corner featuring a sausage stand in Berlin’s working class Wedding neighborhood. Schmidt’s work has been shown in prestigious venues before – for example in New York’s Museum of Modern Art or Munich’s Haus der Kunst. But now three new exhibitions – at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, the Museum Folkwang in Essen and the photography gallery C/O Berlin will show the far-reaching, impact of a movement partially founded by Michael Schmidt in the 70s.


His photographs were snapshots of life from a neighborhood that was still decades away from being discovered by real estate investors.


At a night school in Berlin’s arty Kreuzberg neighborhood,  Mr. Schmidt founded the now legendary Werkstatt der Photographie, or Workshop for Photography. In 1976, he typed out an invitation to the workshop on a sheet of paper. Amateurs and professionals could educate themselves there, with all of them learning from one another, he wrote. And that was whether one’s work was about “vacation slides or about photography as a means of developing your personality,” he said.

Mr. Schmidt had been giving courses in photography since 1969 and the Kreuzberg district council helped support his work on the 1973 book, Berlin-Kreuzberg. The photographs were akin to an ethnological collection, snapshots from a neighborhood that was still decades away from being discovered by real estate investors.

In 1975, Mr. Schmidt’s photographs were shown as art for the first time in Berlin’s Springer Gallery. This success encouraged him to leave the police force and to dedicate himself to teaching. Together with former students, he taught between 6 and 9 on week nights. At that time none of Berlin’s universities or academies offered a degree in photography.

Among Mr. Schmidt’s colleagues were lecturers such as Ulrich Görlich and Wilmar Koenig, who had also discovered photography later in life. The medium was not the most important thing, but rather the photographer’s personality, the individual gaze and its honesty. These ideals were to be realized without drifting off into “psychological therapy,” Mr. Schmidt wrote.

Photographers from the U.S. were sought out to aid in this quest. Wilmar Koenig, who in 1977 took over the workshop’s management from Mr. Schmidt, traveled to the U.S., where he got to know Larry Clark, the merciless portrayer of junkie youth, and invited him to Kreuzberg. A group exhibition of photos by Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore was organized in 1978, in collaboration with Kicken Gallery, and the America House, where C/O Berlin is housed today.

The pictures were hung in plain frames, held up by twine, in rooms which, with their office plants and vinyl flooring, had all the flair of night schools in West Germany, but which also served as a fine motif for these researchers into everyday life. William Eggleston, Larry Fink, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank, all fashionable representatives of auteur photography, came to Kreuzberg to give lectures and teach right through to the end of the workshop in 1986.

Photos by these American idols are on display once again throughout Germany. They are the works of Michael Schmidt’s comrades, who are less well known around the world than he was: The self-portraits and images of the body by Ursula Kelm and Ulrich Görlic, and the experimental, blurry color photographs by Volker Heinze, Gosbert Adler and Joachim Brohm.

This arty documentary style is inspiring new interest today.

Some of these images are real “sleepers,” according to Thomas Weski, who curated the Berlin exhibition. And he is right. At first glance, some of the images seem insignificant. But this gray matter taken in a still-divided Berlin have a fresh appeal, having been dormant for decades. The urban waste, the faces without makeup: They demand the viewer’s contemplation, over and over.


This article was originally published in the German weekly Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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