“I think Michael felt the need to discuss the meaning and importance of American photography with a younger generation in Germany who had no experience with these kinds of elderly figures. The National Socialists had either killed or persecuted them in Germany, so for my generation there was no elderly generation in photography.”
Prof. Thomas Weski is one of the most important curators of photography. His landmark exhibition, How You Look At It , was produced in tandem with the 2000 World’s Fair in Hannover and its catalogue continues to be a meaningful document of 20th century photography. We sat down with Weski in Berlin at the Michael Schmidt Archive, where he is currently acting as curator, to talk about the state of documentary photography since the turn of the millennium, the afterlife the catalogue for How You Look At It has had, and the importance of Michael Schmidt’s photography in Germany and beyond.
Cooper Nash Blade: You co-curated the exhibition How You Look At It: Photographs of the 20th Century ( HYLAI ) in 2000 and wrote the catalogue’s opening essay. In that piece of writing you trace the history of a certain type of photography which you describe as, “a precise description of the object”, “exact”, “artistic and documentary”, “historically present”, “[clear], [precise], and [legible]”’ and as “documentary style”. How did you come to be interested in and start writing about this type of photography?
Thomas Weski: 2000 was a special time especially in Hannover where Expo 2000 was taking place. Usually these big festivals bring in additional money to the city and I had been working as a curator at Sprengel Museum Hannover since 1992 and even before that as a freelancer. There had been a workshop for photography that had recently closed called, “Werkstaat für Fotografie”. It had been founded in 1976 by the German photographer Michael Schmidt and had existed for ten years as part of an adult learning school (Volkshochschule) in West Berlin. They didn’t merely teach the technique of photography, but also ran workshops with and showed exhibitions by American photographers like Robert Adams, John Gossage, William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore. They were very often the first institution in West Germany to show these photographers. My generation made the pilgrimage to West Berlin, and saw these exhibitions. In doing so we met most of these photographers, which was the starting point for me to become interested in this type of photography. The World’s Fair gave me the opportunity to retrace the history of some of these photographers and their transatlantic tradition.
Blade: And how did Michael Schmidt become interested in this photography, seeing as he was living on a cultural island of sorts in West Berlin?
Weski: There were only one or two commercial galleries at that time in Germany, but there was a Swiss magazine named, Camera . It had an American editor, Allan Porter, and he did issues on contemporary American photography which we treated like the Bible. Interesting enough at that time there was not a lot of discussion about this type of photography in the museums, institutions, and colleges. I think Michael felt the need to discuss the meaning and importance of American photography with a younger generation in Germany who had no experience with these kinds of elderly figures. The National Socialists had either killed or persecuted them in Germany, so for my generation there was no elderly generation in photography. I think we looked to the American photographers as role models; not only for creative inspiration but also as to how one could make a living doing this. That is why he felt the need to occupy himself with this type of contemporary photography.
Blade: This history that you describe in HYLAI has become the textbook history in many contexts: Atget blooms into Evans, who influences others like Arbus and the Bechers who then teach their Duesseldorf school and inspire others like Shore and Eggleston. How much of this history did you come to on your own, and how much of it was already present at the time of HYLAI ’s production and publication? What other histories did you rely on?
Weski: One exemplar for me was John Szarkowski’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who originally created shows around these ideas. In Europe at that time it was a way for me to tell a story and create a narrative. I don’t think these photographers all directly influenced one another, but you could put them in a line, which was a kind of curatorial narrative that I created with Heinz Liesbrock, who is an art historian and brought in the dialogue with painting and sculpture. Interesting enough, at the turn of the millennium there was one other show similar to this approach called, “Walker Evans & Company”, at the MoMA which was curated by Peter Galassi. I think it was just in the air and someone had to write it down.
Blade: Now that we are approaching twenty years since the writing of this book, do you ever think about this history that you wrote, would you change anything?
Weski: I think that I made some compromises which I would not do anymore, but I still like the book. There are other shows that I have done where I have more mixed feelings than I do about this one. It just came at the right time. However it is hard for me to assess my own product. Though it is almost twenty years old, it is still very close in my memory. I can only go by the reactions that I get from other people. Some will point it out to me and tell me that it was the book that got them into photography or collecting. I always feel very honored, and ashamed at the same time [Laughs]. It is very good that it has this afterlife, which I never expected.
Blade: I was not present at this exhibition, but the book still works very well on its own. It is funny that you say it has an afterlife, because that is the reason for this interview. I’ve come back to this book many times in the last 8 years since a good friend recommended it to me..
Weski: Yes, the book works by itself. Not only as an art object, but also as a book for studying the history of the medium. It also makes this connection with other forms of art (mainly painting and sculpture) which nearly no one did at the time. The show, “Walker Evans & Company” is again worth mentioning, because it made a similar connection between sculpture, painting, and photography.
Blade: We are currently sitting in The Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive. His presence in HYLAI feels secondary compared to some of the other photographers. As you are currently preparing a large retrospective on Schmidt, has his presence changed at all in your view of the history of 20th Century photography?
Weski: I think it is interesting that you say “secondary” because I feel that he had a privileged position, not only in the show but in the process of creating the exhibition. First of all, he had a whole project that he produced and was shown on the occasion of the World’s Fair in Hannover called Frauen (Women), 1999 . He is also one of the few photographers whose work appears twice in the publication. I met Michael in 1979 or 1980 when he was still with the “Werkstatt für Photographie” and as I started to curate we worked closely on various projects, like Frauen and earlier on his masterpiece Ein-heit (U-ni-ty). So in that regard, I was closer to him personally than most of the photographers in the book.
Blade: His reputation in the art world hasn’t ballooned in the same way that that of some other German photographers has since the turn of the millenium.
Weski: Yes, you are right.
Blade: Is there a reason for that which one can point to?
Weski: He is one of the few photographers that I know of where each separate work is clearly defined. When he would finish one of these projects, he would go through a time of crisis because he would have to redefine his method of accessing reality through (or with) photography for each project. Sometimes one gets the feeling that his work isn’t created by the same author. Some series look more traditionally documentary while others feel completely personal. Other photographers have followed one concept or success story for their entire career which might make their work more identifiable. There are two other reasons. One, is that he has a traditional German name which might not stick out in our crowded media environment. The second is that someone probably wouldn’t be so quick to hang one of his pictures over their couch. His pictures are not as “pretty” as other art works.
Blade: Sometimes I feel that documentary photography is moving very quickly, but then at other times it seems that we are going over the same names again and again, as if the medium is not moving very fast at all. How has that been from your perspective as a curator during the past few decades?
Weski: There are a lot of younger photographers that I find interesting, but you might be right that we can track them down on similar concepts using the models we touch on in HYLAI . It could be prolonged into the next twenty years. Contemporary photography has gone more in depth at certain moments, but the techniques and attitudes seem to be similar to those of the past.
“..it’s not the same excitement that I used to have when I walked into a Lee Friedlander show in 1983 and my heartbeat would increase as if I was going to a rendezvous [Laughs]. Getting older means something. Maybe I’ve seen too many pictures; who knows.”
Blade: Does the work that you see being produced today excite you in the same way that these works excited you?
Weski: Heidi Specker recently had a show in Berlin at the Belinische Galerie where she showed portraits, which I did not expect from her. They were very intense and looked contemporary and new. They got me excited. But it’s not the same excitement that I used to have when I walked into a Lee Friedlander show in 1983 and my heartbeat would increase as if I was going to a rendezvous [Laughs]. Getting older means something. Maybe I’ve seen too many pictures; who knows.
Blade: There is a text online that you wrote for the Eggleston Foundation about his book, Los Almos . In it you say “I consider a photograph interesting whenever a photographer’s view of reality does not double my knowledge of the world, but a difference between our respective perception occurs. The smaller the difference, the more intense is its effect on me.” This topic has to be discussed when talking about documentary photography. It is this kind of flirtation with what reality’s relationship to the fictional is. It seems that you are saying that when a photograph adheres perfectly to your sense of reality it isn’t interesting to you. But if it is just to the side of it, then it becomes gripping because it opens up reality. The goal of this type of documentary photography that you are talking about then seems to be the expansion of reality through the creation of fictions that are made from its (reality’s) surface.
Weski: Yes, absolutely. I was always interested in photographs that come as close as possible to reality but then make a shift that makes the author’s voice recognizable. For example, if you read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood , he uses the style of a reportage, in the form of a conventional novel. His realistic style affects how one looks at reality, but the work is a complete fiction. Which in a different context is what I feel that photographers are doing with their picture taking. Also, I am interested in pictures that show everyday life, but also show the perspective of the photographer and his interest in the real. This also has to do with the fact that I am interested in images that are not too perfect and that deal with the vernacular.
Blade: The adherence to what we have traditionally called “the real” and the expansion of its definition is a wonderful way of explaining what this type of photography is trying to get at. It is also maybe only something that this type of art can do.
Weski: Yes, I also believe that photography is the artistic medium which can do that best. I co-curated another exhibition called “Cruel & Tender: Photography and the Real” in 2003, it was Tate Modern’s first photography show. I think the relationship between the photograph and the real is, as you show, very complex and also our understanding of the real is changing all the time. Even today, I would say that I am interested in photographs that try to capture the real as we understand it collectively and then expand that understanding.
Blade: You end your essay in HYLAI with this wonderful quote about how we will have to look back at digital pictures, which were quite new at the time, and see if they still touch us and give us pause for thought. One can entertain the idea that the “digital” is corrosive, especially for this kind of photography. Do you have any opinions on that?
Weski: It is interesting that Wolfgang Tillmans returned to a snapshot style when he started using a digital camera, because it gave him an accuracy and wealth of detail that one would never get with an analogue camera. He said that he started to produce this kind of imagery because of this technology. I see his more recent pictures as a part of the tradition that we have been talking about. I don’t really mind how the image is constructed technically, I don’t think it is relevant. Though I think a lot of photographers might disagree with what I am saying.
Blade: Who are, in your opinion the greatest critics of photography? Who, through words, gets down to what it is we do with photographs?
Weski : It depends on your definition of critic. Roland Barthes has been important to me. John Szarkowski as well, though he has been ignored lately. He is a brilliant writer, who formulates a very interesting perspective, which makes clear, that he was originally a photographer. Also, more recently I have been reading Michael Fried. These would be my three. Susan Sontag was at a certain time but not as much anymore.
Blade: My final question is, why isn’t Henri Cartier-Bresson in HYLAI ?
Weski: That is right, and a good question.
Blade: I ask because I find myself often reassessing my own opinions of certain photographers, asking myself why I enjoy a certain person’s body of work. Cartier-Bresson is someone who I have never come to a conclusion about. However, he seems to be the photographer whom the most people reference as important to the medium in the 20th century. For example I know Eggleston talks about him. This made it interesting to not see him mentioned at all in your volume. Was there a reason for that?
Weski: At the time his work seemed to be too perfect. There is a poignant quote by the media artist Nam June Paik, who said: “Wenn zu perfekt, lieber Gott böse.” (“When too perfect, God will be angry.”) This is exactly the feeling which I have when I look at Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of decisive moments, though I know how hard it is to catch them. The same goes for Edward Weston or Ansel Adams. I guess the list for HYLAI was built very subjectively and those included were done so merely on the fact that we were interested in them and their work at the time. Which I guess means that Cartier-Bresson just didn’t come to our minds. I was less interested in the “perfect moment” and more in certain imperfections that open up a photograph to interpretation.
Cooper Nash Blade is an American photographer currently based in Berlin, Germany.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Cooper Nash Blade. Images @ Michael Schmidt.)