Times Change, Photos Change - Change Week


by Tanya Silverman

From Arcana; Berlin, July 1994. By Joachim Schmid.

Photography is an ever-changing medium, both for the practitioner and the viewer.

Simultaneously, if you’re an artist who works extensively with found photography–like Joachim Schmid, who has done so for decades–your work will undoubtedly be influenced by the medium’s transformations.

Based in Berlin, Schmid has embraced many of the ongoing changes in photography since the 1980s, when he began to work with found images. Until 10 or 15 years ago, he explains, most photographs had been hidden away in archives and were otherwise inaccessible to the public. Now, however, with available inexpensive technology, plus the internet, online photo hosting has proliferated greatly, making not only our photographs, but our very lives, available to the public.

The transition also grants Schmid access to more photos to work with–switching to focus on digital was simply a logical move, as he sees it.

From Archiv (1986-1999); Archiv 190. By Joachim Schmid.

Looking back to the bygone days of film, Schmid produced various projects with analog materials, for instance, his 1991 Photogenetic Drafts. He worked with a cluster of black-and-white negatives, cut vertically in half, and juxtaposed them to form new, Frankenstein-like, portraits. In Archiv, which spanned from 1986 through 1999, Schmid combined found prints around common themes and style: curly poodles, aerial urban skylines, repetitive touristic images of the Athens Parthenon taken from the same angle.

As for digitally sourced work, one involved venture was Other People’s Photographs, which comprises 96 books displaying “themes and visual patterns presented by modern, everyday photographers” via sites like Flickr. Assembled from 2008-2011, each edition explores a common matter in modern photography: Airports, Parking Lots, Faces in Holes, Commodities, Mickey, and 91 others.

The series, Schmid explains, was meant to uncover “what was a good snapshot for an amateur” picture taker, and get a grasp of the visual output that members of society–not professional photographers–produce.

From the First Shots book in the Other People’s Photographs series. By Joachim Schmid.

There are fishers holding fish in Big Fish, blue purses in Bags, and even impulsive photos of freshly opened camera boxes in First Shots. When asked how he was able to come up with formulas to filter photos, Schmid says that the navigation process was executed when Flickr offered a landing page called “Most Recent Uploads,” which he would refresh “every couple seconds” when searching for material.

“If I found something more or less interesting than the other, I would keep a copy of it. In the process of doing that over the weeks and months, I would come up with recurring motifs and then I focused on those,” says Schmid.

The Flickr-viewing approach sounds very contemporary, however, the ability to employ that process is already over.

“Nowadays I would not be able to repeat that because the interface was redesigned. Flickr does not provide that random selection of recent uploads,” but rather, more selective images. Schmid describes such pictures as “too beautiful,” and misrepresentative of the actions of amateurs.

From the Airline Meals book in the Other People’s Photographs series. By Joachim Schmid.

Several of the Other People’s Photographs books focus on edibles. Specifically, there’s Pizza, Airline Meals, Bread, Fish, Coffee, Currywurst, (which he describes as a famous fast-food of his hometown Berlin) and, more generally, Food.

Would people be taking pictures of their grub, or so many of them, in the age of analog?

“No, definitely not–simply, because it costs money,” Schmid answers, referring to the cost of film that people had to consider.

However, given the digital photography explosion offset, people have discovered how enjoyable it is to take snapshots to share.

“I assume now that even if you did charge money there’s no way back because people have so much fun with it,” he reasons.

Perhaps everyday food documentation is a recent phenomenon, however, certain themes have persisted throughout all ages of photography; for instance, the portrait.

Likewise, portraits have remained a notable focus throughout Schmid’s work. He made three Belo Horizonte series, in 1992, 1993, and 2002, which involved collecting discarded negatives of portraits (ones used for administrative purposes like ID cards) and developing them into prints. Acquired from a provincial Brazilian city, the first two were in black and white, the product of a simple box that took and developed photos, and the last was in color, with 35mm cameras and film taken to labs.

Schmid also completed a black-and-white Decisive Portraits series of WWII-era soldiers in 1998, not to mention a few pixilated, colorful Untitled Portraits in his 2007 project. Other People’s Photographs has both a Portraits and Self series–the latter exemplifying the craze of the “selfie,” which Schmid reacts to as an “awful word.”

From Belo Horizonte, Praca Rio Branco (1992); 6. By Joachim Schmid.

While he’s largely reluctant to speculate on the future, Schmid reasons that it’s likely for portraits to continue in photographic future, as they provide a means for the human desire to understand ourselves and others.

On the other hand, certain photographic practices are clearly over at this point. Schmid maintained an ongoing project entitled Pictures from the Street. From 1982 to 2012, he collected discarded photographic prints, and concluded the exercise after coming across his 1000th discovery. But it’s not only about the numeric mark as to why that project is finished.

“There’s hardly anything out there anymore in the age of digital photographs being printed,” except for select ones people like, Schmid rationalizes. “In the age of analog, nearly everything got printed, and then people threw out the ones that they disliked.”

From Pictures from the Street (1982-2012); No. 83. By Joachim Schmid.

Some of the found photos throughout his 30-year stretch of street searching were ones Schmid discovered torn up and then he pieced back together. Studying the physical rips, such as the size of the little torn fragments, illustrates how disturbing a picture can be for a person, and how they conjured such an urge to get rid of it in public–rather than at the trash bin at home, where no one would see. For instance, a torn-up picture of a young couple taken in the same place it was destroyed may signify that the relationship was done with, and one of them returned to manually demolish it publicly.

Naturally, that procedure makes a significant difference to pressing a delete button.

Perhaps photography works to capture a moment in still, but its existence has been increasingly fluid, with its ever-changing legacy that’s included anything from introducing color to digital to cell-phone cameras, then Kodak closing or Facebook buying Instagram.

From Archiv (1986-1999); Archiv 253. By Joachim Schmid.

Is there anything that will ever stop Joachim Schmid from sifting through others’ photographs?

“Nothing I can think of at the moment, but never say never,” Schmid answers. He continues that he went through a phase about 10 years ago thinking he was finished with the practice, but then something new would always happen and he would start on different endeavors.

Again, though, he’s not a speculative individual.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do in five years’ time. Maybe I’ll get tired of it and I’ll do something else,” he says.

Who knows what any of us will do in five years’ time, where photography will go, how people will visually document their lives, who will view it, and what will be made of it.

Joachim Schmid will be giving a lecture on Mar 14 in San Francisco.