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.


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