Archiv 321, 1993 from the series Archiv
Joachim Schmid (b. 1955) is a prominent German photographer who has based his photographic career on using other people’s pictures. In a genre referred to as Found Photography Schmid provides witty and perceptive insights into our collective fascination with using photography to document our existence. Using vernacular photography he found either in fleamarkets or online Schmid makes collections of repetitive imagery. He now has 96 books each with a different edit such as Food, Hands, Hotel Rooms etc. By curating the pictures into themes he takes a critical look at our relationship with photography throughout the last few generations and how we continually repeat ourselves by taking the same pictures.
After meeting him at the Tate conference on Vernacular Photography he talks with me here about his series Archiv and Other People’s Photographs.
Did you start collecting other people’s photographs before you saw the repetitive patterns or is that what made you begin collecting? Was it a chicken and egg situation?
It is a chicken and egg situation indeed. I was curious about snapshots, I started looking at them and for them, and looking at many of them is of course more revealing than looking at a few. If you look at many photographs – that’s true not only for snapshots – it’s nearly impossible not to notice recurring patterns.
As opposed to other people roaming the flea markets I never saw myself as a collector. I wasn’t interested in carrying together a selection of fine and outstanding photographs or a complete collection of photographs of vintage cars or everything with a swastika or a naked people or whatever. My emphasis was the average snapshot as a cultural practice, and the basic idea was a visual survey of snapshot photography in 20th century. Later I also included other forms such as postcards, studio photos, etc.
I accumulated a lot of photographs because I needed them as the raw material for this project. So collecting isn’t the accurate term for what I was doing, I prefer to call it gathering. In anthropological terms a gatherer collects stuff for their own consumption.
Can you remember the first time you saw the repetitive patterns? What struck you?
There was no first time. An artist’s career is not a series of “Eureka!” shouts. Finding things is usually the result of very tedious processes, it’s preceded by wasting quite a bit of time. There’s not much “inspiration” but stamina and sometimes a bit of good luck. Slowly striking things emerge. For this project it was the fact that we all take very similar photographs but we never learned how to do this. Our parents don’t tell us, we don’t learn it at school, and people all over the world do it nevertheless. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the resulting snapshots do what people expect them to do, and that’s all there is.
Archiv 670, 1996 from the series Archiv
Have you read Italo Calvino’s Adventures of a photographer? Your work reminds me of it in how it uses people’s obsessive relationship with photography to make an interesting story. Do you resonate with the idea that photography leads to madness? How do you save yourself from that? (Perhaps you don’t!)
Yes, I did read Calvino’s story. One of my professors at art school gave me a copy, and I loved it immediately. It’s brilliant how Calvino describes the fascination of photography that turns into obsession that turns into insanity. It’s a transformation that seems to be inevitable, at least in literature. However, looking at the practice of many photographers there are clear parallels, both in snapshot photography and among professionals. Calvino didn’t pull this out of the hat, he must have studied the subject for a while.
I assume reading his piece must have left an imprint in my thinking about photography. The last part of the question is difficult to answer. We don’t have such a clear definition of madness any more. To make things more difficult, the answer of a man who is suspected of being mad isn’t a useful diagnosis of the man’s condition. It’s a perfect Catch 22 situation.
At the Tate conference you talked about how the audience interacted with your work in a very different way when it was presented to them in a book rather than a slideshow. This tactile and involved presence of the viewer brings with it a pensive quality rather than the numbing / detached quality of a slideshow or internet site where the viewer has no control. How has this worked to your advantage in what you hope to achieve as an artist?
My first works with images drawn from the web were presented as digital slideshows. A digital presentation seemed to be the obvious way to present digital images. I was happy with the results but I noticed soon that it is difficult to get an attention span of more than a few minutes for digital presentations. Then I tried books. People look at them much longer, page by page, going from book to book. I have seen people who spent two hours looking at books. I never saw anyone looking at a monitor for more than ten minutes. We talk about the same images, the same quantity. So the decision was easy. A project like Other People’s Photographs consists of more than 3,000 photographs, and of course I want them to be seen. You don’t get much out of it if you just look at five percent of it. I don’t know for sure why books seem to be more attractive but I am happy to follow the audience’s preference, in particular if it matches my own preference. Books have a number of advantages, they don’t depend on electricity, they don’t emit error messages, and so on.
With the fleamarket work (Archiv) you felt you were always a generation behind, before Flickr etc. Now in a very immediate world, do you find yourself looking back at those collections? Do you see them in a new light now?
The longer I worked on Archiv the more I became aware of the project’s limitations. One was the limited number of photos I had at hand. Now there’s unlimited supply, more photos are uploaded every minute than I can look at in a day. The other problem was the fact that I was behind my own time, often more than one generation. This aspect got more dominant with the passing of time, and it facilitates a nostalgic look at the photographs. That’s not intended but is hard if not impossible to avoid.
Archiv 547, 1993 from the series Archiv
There is something romantic and flaneur-like about wandering around to discover these fragments of other people’s lives rather than ‘sitting like a monkey on a computer’ as you put it elsewhere! Does this process make a difference to the work at all? Does it make you see differently?
Digital photography changed a lot, and online photo hosting even more. Looking at photos in a site like Flickr has little to do with looking at a box of snapshots in a thrift store. Despite all the obvious losses the new situation has a number of obvious advantages. It’s much more efficient because I have access to a continuously increasing number of photos, and there’s the search engine. The search engine is probably the new thing that changed our behaviour and our attitudes more than anything else. Sure, there are awful moments sitting in front of a computer, and I try to escape the situation regularly. But then when I go out and find something I may want to work with, the first thing I do back home is putting it in the scanner. For my type of work the new technology is clearly more suitable, more efficient.
Do you wish people would stop photographing in the same way and be more original or do you find some comfort in this behaviour?
It’s not my job to tell people what to do and what not to do. I am curious about popular uses of photography. If the photographs I find are repetitive I work about this aspect and if they are not I work with their particularities.
What hole do you think it would leave in us if we all stopped photographing our cliches?
I guess this is not going to happen. If millions of people are happy taking the same pictures again and again they won’t stop. The photos seem to do the trick they are supposed to do. A few academics see a problem or two but that doesn’t matter for the people who take the pictures. So I don’t wish to waste time thinking about that hypothetical hole. I prefer to spend my time with problems that exist.
Archiv 317, 1993 from the series Archiv
Can you offer any answers to the question you raise in your work: Why do we all take the same pictures?
They work. We know that raising kids is not a bed of roses but if you look at the photos people take of their kids the world is just fine. Not much crying, no diapers, no throwing up, no measles. That’s what people want. A happy marriage but no divorce. One of three marriages does end in a divorce in modern society but this is not reflected in popular photography. People will rather try a second marriage than a new approach to photography. I guess it’s more comfortable to base your life on the assumption that things will be all right. Living with the idea that things may well go wrong is closer to reality but not very popular.
As photography is winning the battle of being accepted as an art form I imagine it is easier for you now than it may have been in the past to be accepted as an artist and as a photographer. What do you think is a problem today that photographers might need to fight for over the next 20 years?
I think we have to face some facts hardly anyone talks about. One of them is overproduction, not the overproduction of photographs but the overproduction of photographers. There are hundreds of art schools in Europe, each of them churns out another bunch of young artists every year, and most of them don’t stand a chance on the art market. A limited number of galleries, a limited number of collections, shrinking budgets of public collections, and a constantly increasing number of artists. There’s obviously a problem with the art business. The editorial business doesn’t look any better, the number of magazines that commission photographers decreases with the advertising budgets going online. The education business is booming.
Photographers have to reinvent their trade, self-publishing, artist run galleries etc. are signs of a new economy. That’s fine but not enough, photographers have to start fighting for their rights. One of them is getting money for exhibitions. There are more exhibitions than ever, and everybody working in this business is being paid, the people who paint the walls, the people who put up the lights, the frame makers, the printers, the security guys, the cleaning crew, not to forget the curators and directors, the person writing the press release and everybody else, except the person providing the artwork.
What’s more mad? Working for free or ignoring the facts of modern society?