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 Michael Schmidt  (1945 - 2014)

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Lived/Active: Germany      Known for: socio-political themed black and white photography

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Following is The New York Times obituary of Michael Schmidt.

Michael Schmidt, Photographic Storyteller, Dies at 68

German photographer Michael Schmidt was known for presenting stark black-and-white images in dramatic sequence, to powerful emotional effect. A recent project was a penetrating tour of the global food industry that included arresting images of factory farms, a cow’s bulging udder, supermarkets and a single apple. It won an international award just days before Mr. Schmidt’s death on May 24 in Berlin. He was 68.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, confirmed the death, praising the “modernity and singularity” of Mr. Schmidt’s work. No cause was given.

Mr. Schmidt would work four or more years on a single project — he devoted seven to documenting the food industry — taking thousands of pictures and then, in the editing, make a frame-by-frame, filmstrip-like narrative of them for shows and books. Except for a handful of later photos, he worked in gray; he called black and white the extreme shades of that indeterminate color.

He expressed his goal in arranging pictures as “1 + 1 = 3,” a coinage illustrating his belief that juxtaposing a series of photographs greatly increases their emotional power.
His work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Berlin and Venice Biennails. He published more than a dozen books and exhibition catalogs.
Last month, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, announced that Mr. Schmidt had won the Prix Pictet, a global award (amounting to $112,500 this year) given annually to a photographer whose work is of outstanding quality and has contributed to environmental consciousness. The prize was started in 2008 by the Pictet Group, a Swiss banking concern founded in 1805.

Mr. Schmidt, who was reported to be too ill to attend the event, won the prize for a project he titled “Lebensmittel,” which roughly translates as “Foodstuffs.” The award jury called it “an epic and hugely topical investigation into the ways in which we feed ourselves.”

The French photographer Luc Delahaye, who won last year’s prize and was a judge this year, said of Mr. Schmidt’s work: “His language is a language of precision and his tool is the most simple one: a small 35-millimeter camera and a few rolls of film. His pictures look simple at first glance, and their anti-sentimentality, their refusal of all the tricks of the usual seduction, their concision and their clarity, give them great efficiency.”

Mr. Schmidt’s 1987 book, Waffernruhe (Cease-Fire), addresses Berlin after years of the Cold War through repeated shots of the Berlin Wall as well as images of torn window screens, rusted steel girders and nearly black streets.

Reviewing his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988, Andy Grundberg wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Schmidt’s pictures evoked “a state halfway between creation and decay.”

But most chilling, Mr. Grundberg wrote, were Mr. Schmidt’s pictures of Berliners, particularly younger ones who had embraced punk culture. “The expressions are hard-edged, the eyes as obdurate as metal,” he wrote. “It is as if cynicism were the price of survival.”

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Schmidt produced a book and exhibition titled Ein-Heit (Einheit means unity in German), which grappled with the question of German identity. It included news photographs of Nazi rallies and of a boy denouncing his parents to the East German secret police and juxtaposed them with his own photographs of Berliners in a united city. One was of himself.

Mr. Schmidt was born in the eastern part of Berlin on Oct. 6, 1945. His family moved to West Berlin before the wall went up in 1961. At his family’s urging he took a job as a police officer to ensure a steady living, but he abandoned that work to follow his early passion for photography.

He had no formal training when he started as a freelancer but later took courses and passed a certification test to be a photo-designer. He went on to start a photography school and ran it for several years.

He is survived by his wife, Karin, and a daughter.

Mr. Schmidt once described himself as a “blind-alley photographer,” likening his creative approach to walking into a cul-de-sac and scrambling to find a way back out. “Failure or making mistakes,” he said, “is an integral part of my working.”

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