Joachim Schmid Interviewed by Sarah Goodrum
This interview was prompted by the author meeting the artist at the August 18, 2013 edition of April Gertler and Adrian Schiesser’s itinerant Sonntag art exhibitions in Schöneberg, Berlin, where Schmid displayed Estrelas Amadas (2013). In this interview in late August 2013, Schmid specifically that series of artworks, which is an exhibition and subsequent artist book.
Sarah Goodrum: How long have you been in Berlin?
Joachim Schmid: 39 years in Berlin. I’m from the South of Germany, in the countryside, but always wanted to be in the big city. I came to study, and also because the girlfriend was here.
S.G.: How has your practice evolved into found photography?
J.S.: It’s really hard to say, because a biography is pieced together from a series of accidents. I guess it has to do with the way I discovered art. I grew up in the context of the countryside. There was no art, there was no literature, there was nothing—there were cows in the fields and apples in the trees and people who had never seen a university. And we were the first generation of kids who went to secondary school, but only because our parents thought it would offer us a better introduction to making money, etc.
And the parents made one mistake. They sent me on an exchange program. And there I walked into a museum. I had no idea that things like museums existed. And the first exhibition I ever saw in my entire life was Andy Warhol. And it was great! I didn’t have a clue, of course, but it was wonderful. If you start with Warhol, why would you not work with found photographs?
I think it has to do with that. So for me it was the most natural thing to do to use other people’s photographs. For a while I tried all kinds of things, I made drawings, I made paintings, I made prints, awful stuff of course. What you do when you’re fifteen years old… But pretty soon photography really got me and of course I wanted to become a photographer. After a short period of time I realized that this wasn’t so appealing. Mostly, it’s pretty easy being a photographer. It’s actually not that difficult. I mean, honestl
Before I was an artist, I edited a magazine about photography, because I had more doubts and questions about photography than I had answers and it was more interesting than making more pictures. And the more I got into thinking about photography and writing about photography, the more I got interested in the vernacular and what’s out there and what’s happening in newspapers and postcards and snapshots, and I started collecting that stuff, basically because I thought I could write about it. And eventually writing became less and less important because I thought the pictures were just stronger than anything I could write about them. Just let them be what they are, and make the best out of them. This is a brief history of how I got to what I’m doing.
S.G.: Did you think of yourself as an artist at an early age, then?
J.S.: When I was young I wanted to become an artist, but then I didn’t like it as a career. So, I studied in the graphic design department, but I never really worked as a graphic designer. And I didn’t care what you called me: a writer, a critic, an artist, or a publisher. I was just doing the things I was interested in, and luckily I was able to get along and make a living without making too many compromises. Soon after graduating, I had a very nice teaching position at the University teaching photography in the graphic design department, which kept me alive for a couple of years. And that’s the time when I had a lot of freedom and invented myself. It was a well-paid job, so I could just do what I wanted to do without thinking about daily expenses. There was never a photography department at the school—this was the UdK Berlin, formerly HdK—and at that time they didn’t even have a photography class in the graphic design department or in fine arts. Nowhere at all—it just didn’t exist. That was around 1981 -85. And the professor I’d studied with was quite interested in what I was doing, although it had nothing to do with what he did. He obviously saw there was a quality and thought, “Let’s give that man a chance to do something,” and so he got me that job, which was great. I was teaching something like 10 hours a week. I could do whatever I was interested in. It was a really a lucky coincidence.
The school has changed dramatically—at that time it was completely unregulated. I studied for five years. I don’t have a degree. There wasn’t one, even if you wanted one. We had Meisterschüler, but formally there’s nothing. It’s just an internal title. Ok, you made it, and now ffft, out.
The teachers didn’t have formal qualifications either. It was not required at that time, and you can still get away with being an art teacher without having any formal qualifications. I think it’s going to change in one or two generations. It’s good for people who have energy, but it’s dangerous for people who need a kick in the ass.
S.G.: What photography magazine did you edit?
J.S.: It was called Fotokritik, criticism of photography—self published, very small. I had written reviews and stuff for two or three other magazines, but they didn’t publish everything I wanted to publish, and I thought there was quite a lot to be talked about. I had this stack of unpublished material and thought, “Well, why don’t you make your own magazine? If other people can make magazines, I can make a magazine, too.” Zero budget. I made it with a typewriter and then I Xeroxed my manuscripts, made 50 copies, and offered them for sale and they sold. After a while, I had subscribers and it was a magazine, though it was still a stapled stack of Xerox copies. Later on, I started binding it and put a cover on it. Then I got my first personal computer, I think in 1985. It cost a fortune at that time, but it made life much easier. And actually, I had a couple of interesting conversations when I was looking around for what computer to buy. There weren’t that many on offer. The reason I bought an Apple computer eventually was that the guy at IBM told me, “What do you want to make? A magazine? On a PC?! That’s never going to happen!”
S.G.: And you said, “Fine, I’ll get an Apple!”
J.S.: And a few years later, there was not one magazine in the world that was not made on a PC. So I produced the magazine from 82-87, 24 issues. People ask me if I’ll put them online, but I think it was fine for its time, and…the German word Zeitschrift tells you everything. It’s about that time. So I’m not interested in digging that out again.
And one of the reasons why I’m not happy with it is, of course, that I used it to publish my own shit, but I was also seriously interested in a discourse. We need some discussion about what is happening in that world. That was a time when everybody was fighting and struggling to establish photography as an art form, and I had serious doubts about that. Is that what we want? Or is a photograph much more than a commodity you can sell in galleries? Of course it is. What I was interested in was the sense that photography is much wider, it’s always anchored in the real world, and you can connect things: you can find the same photograph in the morning in the newspaper and in the evening in a gallery. What happens in those shifts—that’s a super interesting question. But hardly anybody would participate in that discussion, because everybody was saying “Now we’re going to be artists, we want to be artists!” The result of that was to ignore every other aesthetic and context of photography: “This has nothing to do with photography….This is commercial bullshit!”
Is photography art? Is painting art? What a stupid question. It’s understandable that this thinking happened, but I had doubts. And I just found other questions more interesting. When I’d just arrived at art school, Susan Sontag’s book On Photography had just come out, and it had a major impact. I went to the library and I looked around, but at that time, what you found in photography were Time/Life volumes about color photography and things like that. That was the literature that was there, which was not much. Critical writing about photography hardly existed. There was Beaumont Newhall’s history of photography and stuff like that, but that was the end of it. Susan Sontag’s book was an atomic bomb arriving in that field. And I thought it was wonderful.
And that book, as well as Barthes’ Camera Lucida, is just well written. It’s not academic rubbish. It’s literature. Not twice as many footnotes as text. Just well written, good stuff. That’s what I like. She put quite a number of issues on the table that nobody had talked about, and that was fantastic.
From Estrelas Amadas (2013), Courtesy of the artist
S.G.: The work shown at the Sonntag exhibition series in Berlin in 2013—Estrelas Amadas—how you would characterize your role in that work? Are you an author, a finder, an editor?
J.S.: It’s a combination of all of those. It sounds banal, but what Picasso says is right: “I don’t look for things, I find things.” It’s a state of mind or it’s a mood. I’m just terribly curious about the stuff. So I keep digging around and looking at things. And roaming the streets like a truffle pig, I find stuff, or sometimes I don’t. But I’m always looking around. A typical situation: I’m on vacation with my wife. We’re in Italy and want to go to see one famous church or whatever, because she’s an art historian. On the way to the church, I come along a postcard rack, and I just have to stop there. I’ll be right with you at the church, but first I’ve got to look at those damned postcards. Some of them might be interesting. Or when I’m in a bar, I just pick up the paper, even if I don’t speak the language, and look at the pictures, and sometimes I tear out a page and take it with me or I pick up a piece of rubbish on the street. I mean, the world is so saturated with images, and many of them are super fascinating I think. I’m curious about the world of images, and I try to get a comprehensive idea of what’s out there. And I take the liberty of selecting and picking things: “No, that’s great, that’s mine now.” It’s adopting. I think that’s quite interesting.
Again, it’s not my idea, it’s a friend’s idea—Joan Fontcuberta, a photographer from Spain. He said that he thinks appropriation is not a very good term actually; we should call it adopting. And if you look at the political history or the legal history of what adoption means, it’s a great idea, because it means you give something a new status, you elevate it into another status. And I like that, so I look at it as adoption.
I’m adopting all of those abandoned pictures that are out there. Not all of them of course, but the ones I like.
S.G.: You are treading that ground of asking whether an image is a museum object or not…or at least you’re raising that question. By moving a magazine page into a gallery space. Is that why they’re not framed?
J.S.: It’s always about shifting things, and in the end everything ends up in the museum. You can fight against it as much as you want to. It’s a lost battle. At the end, it ends up in the museum.
Back to the other question: do I call myself an artist. Because after a while you realize that they don’t hire people who are 45 at the post office, so being an artist is the only option that’s left. You can’t get a job anymore, and basically there’s just that one path left. So yeah, you’re an artist now. You do work and you are an artist no matter whether you are happy with the label or not.
One of the results of what happened throughout the twentieth century—if what an artist does is considered halfway interesting, it ends up in the museum. Do what you want. I can put it in a trashbin and someone will take it out of the trashbin if they think it’s interesting.
S.G.: Or they’ll call the trashbin an exhibition space?
J.S.: Or whatever—it’s going to end up in the museum anyway. And of course, we all have to make our living somehow, so we also make things that are potentially sellable. It’s a potential commodity, although for most of us, the gallery system does not work. This is something hardly any artist is honest about. It’s a tiny minority of artists who get along well in the traditional gallery system. But still, many of us hope that one day we’ll win the lottery. We’ll find the one great gallery and it will work. It’s true, it happens to some of us.
But I think other parts of the system are much more interesting nowadays. I mean, look at Berlin and the tremendous number of artists here. There’s a rather limited market, so the art is really reinventing itself on a daily basis. You have all of those alternative spaces or non-spaces, and different approaches to how to interact with an audience or how to interact with each other and how to find a public voice, and I find that super interesting. And also people reinvent the economy on a micro basis with self-publishing. You can find the same thing in music and independent cinema, too. People are struggling, and this struggle produces these interesting attempts and approaches. I don’t know whether they will all be successful or how long they will sustain themselves, but I like the energy and the creativity that is no longer limited to making the work itself, but widening to controlling everything from the production to the distribution.
S.G.: And the curating role moves around in an interesting way… There may not be a huge buying public in Berlin, but there’s a participating public here.
J.S.: I completely agree.
S.G.: Can you talk a little more about Estrelas Amadas?
J.S.: Ok, a little bit of background. During the past 10 years, I worked almost exclusively with internet imagery, because there’s a tremendous amount of stuff out there that is much much more than you could ever dream of finding in the physical world. In the 80s and 90s, I worked a lot with snapshot photography, and most of them came from fleamarkets. Even if you buy something like 10,000 photographs at a fleamarket, which may have been the number I bought at the fleamarket next door, it’s nothing compared to the10,000 that are uploaded to Flickr in one minute. And I have billions at my fingertips now, which is seductive, but I thought, “Oh Fuck, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking at a computer screen.”
Once in a while, I make intentional efforts to get away from the screen, in particular when traveling. And so I was in Lisbon, I think for a talk, and I had half a day off and strolled through Lisbon. I came through a second-hand book market and I found these celebrity magazines there and said “What the fuck…these are so beautiful. I haven’t seen anything like them.” They’re little brochures about actors. They were published by a Portuguese publisher, obviously in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I found those red traces in some of them, and as the seller asked quite a lot of money for them, I selected only the ones where the former owner had worked on the photographs. In some of them it was just extraordinary.
It’s a very intimate little thing. First I wondered why would someone do that, all that coloring in such an obsessive way. But it was done so meticulously. And also, the red is so bright. I have no idea what material the person used; it’s clearly not color pencil.
I had them on my desk for a while and thought, “Actually, you’ve got to use them.” They are fantastic.
S.G.: I’m stuck on the idea of authorship. How do you feel about the role of the original photographer in a situation like this?
J.S.: That’s interesting. In particular for these it’s interesting. These come out of the world’s biggest image-making industry. And of course there is no author. It’s a very admirable industry, working at high standards, but the photographer is completely exchangeable. I mean, they all produce the same images, and you just see this as Hollywood imagery.
S.G.: These are publicity and film still shots.
J.S.: Yes, and they’re made according to industry standards, which is great. And of course there must be somebody behind the camera, but it really doesn’t matter who that person is. What would matter is who invented that particular light, but also it’s not just one person, but rather the collective effort of an industry that creates a particular aesthetic.
So I think if these have an author, it’s the young woman who did the coloring and then me who found them. And it’s clearly a woman. If you look at the handwriting in some of them, it’s clearly a young woman who collected these. So I think she would be the main author here. Without the coloring I would not have bought those, and I would probably not have used the unaltered photographs, because that would probably then be Baldessari’s field. Or potential raw material for Baldessari. But the way that they were personalized in that particular way, that was what fascinated me. So I think you’re right, it’s a double authorship, but based on anonymous production. It’s the woman who did the coloring and me who found it, but basically we’re the two authors.
S.G.: Do you just intuitively decide whether you want to manipulate found images?
J.S.: Yeah, it’s intuitive. For many years, I was seriously looking for any pattern—is there any reason, are there criteria? But there are none. This experience of looking and intuition and desire, or whatever you want to call it, maybe fascination—“Wow, this is great!” And then sometimes, I’m not sure, so I just leave it on the desk for a while, sometimes for years, and eventually I drop it or I decide to work with it. It’s not thinking, but rather continuous looking.
S.G.: Why do you make all these little books? I wonder if it’s a practical thing, or a good way to show things, or whether you actually place a lot of value on the artist’s book?
J.S.: Several reasons. One is that books are very good for getting your stuff out in the world. Exhibitions are fine, and I love making exhibitions, but they are limited in time. They allow you great things outside the book, but then the exhibition is over, and even a good installation photograph doesn’t replicate it. The book is there forever. It’s cheap, I can make multiple copies, and I can send them out. I started making books in the 80s, while I was making the magazine, basically using the same technique. I think it’s one of the most efficient ways of creating something like a mini cultural context. What’s between the two covers is part of it, and everything outside the covers is not part of it. It’s a clear decision about how to create meaning in a meaningful context and also how to place it in way that says, “I want this to be perceived as one tiny slice of a huge collective library, and I’m contributing my slice to this form of collective knowledge production.” And the great thing is, it doesn’t cost anything. If it breaks, you have another one. If it bends, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not about the precious unique object, but still it communicates an idea quite precisely. You have multiple copies—you can send them out. It’s also practically the best thing to advertise your work.
Some of my works only exist as books, but the white books are basically catalogs of works that exist as wall works. You send them to people you want to work with, or curators who are interested. And what’s more, I love them.
S.G.: Do you think the advent of the digital has drastically changed your practice?
J.S.: Yes, dramatically. I was making quite a number of books in the 80s, and I liked them, but I had two major problems. One was, with Xerox copies, you come to the limits of what’s technically feasible. So it works when you have enlarged newspaper photographs or photographs of really powerful screen, you can copy that, but if you have something more delicate, it’s just too bad. But also, getting them out in the world was much more difficult. Now, with an Internet distribution structure, it’s much easier to communicate the existence of the books, and of course with digital printing, it’s fantastic. You can get a pretty decent print for little money, and you don’t have to come up with the budget for 500 or 1000 copies. You start with 1 if you want. That changed everything.
I mean, during the past 5 years, I made more than 100 books.
S.G.: Do you think it changed the way you look at a photograph as a thing? On a practical level, of course, it’s revolutionary for digital images to exist. But also, what do you think the impact has been on the photograph as a thing?
J.S.: I think it changed everything. Of course, the traditional art world tries to re-establish that “This is the original photograph,” as questionable as it might be. On a practical level, a photograph doesn’t last forever, so it has to be replaced once in a while when the colors start to change and to fade. But of course we don’t talk about that. We do that secretively. But, as a general practice, when we started discussing digital photography, the main focus was always—“It’s potentially manipulated,” “It’s not the authentic depiction anymore.” But that’s only a minor detail, in my opinion. The most important aspect is the tremendous proliferation of production. It doesn’t cost anything anymore. Until maybe 20 years ago, people would make on average only between 20 and 100 photographs a year. Now they do that every day on their smart phone, or even more. But much more interesting is the fact that they are all accessible—well, not all, but many are accessible. Until 20 years ago, most photographs that were taken were never seen by most of us. They were in private albums, they were in corporate archives, they were in governmental archives, wherever, but only a tiny portion became public. And now you have unlimited access to a tremendous number of pictures. Most of them are of course rubbish, but that’s normal, that’s fine, I don’t have any problem with that.
But what I did with that series Other People’s Photographs would not have been possible before. Now I can watch in real time how people upload their shit. Basically, by looking at the screen, I can see how the globe is turning. The Japanese are uploading, the Chinese are uploading, the Russians are uploading. It’s unbelievable…nothing like this has ever existed before. I was super fascinated. Well, by now, I’ve gotten a bit tired of it, but when I discovered that for the first time, I thought, “Wow! This is unbelievable!”
S.G.: And it’s been changing so fast!
J.S.: You know, again, until 20 years ago, you would go to the flea market and buy a few boxes of snapshots. And after you did that a couple of times, you would see, oh there are patterns, it’s natural photography. But now you can see in real time how patterns emerge and how they change. It’s unbelievable.
Face recognition and geo-tagging will have a tremendous impact on how people use photographs. People come up with completely new ideas about how to use photographs that nobody thought about before.
Again, until around 20 years ago, the entire discourse about photography when it comes to snapshots and vernacular photography was based and centered around the idea of memory. Forget about it, it has nothing to do with that anymore. It’s about circulation; it’s about now. It’s not about the past, not about the future. It’s all about circulating now. And people use photography in completely unpredictable ways. The other day, I saw somebody sitting in the lecture in the first row holding his phone up and using the camera to look behind him and see who else had arrived. And you find stuff like that every day. People use their cameras like a toothpick or spoon… it’s just an everyday tool. Any possible use, it’s now there.
And of course, this changes everything.
S.G.: Digital photography was one thing, but then the handheld device revolution…
J.S.: And now they’re technically so advanced, you can’t tell the difference anymore. Three or four years ago, you saw immediately, “Ahh, a crappy cellphone photograph.” That’s over.
S.G.: It’s an ontological shift and not a change of format.
J.S.: Absolutely. “Photography” doesn’t mean anything anymore. As I said earlier, I’ve always been interested in why there is this need to make photography into art. As a medium, it’s even wider and less easily tamed now, and I think it raises many questions. Art photography does exist, and it will soon have the status of, say, watercolors 20 years ago. It’s just something people do.
The volume of produced images is a challenge to curators. Why would you show that? Why would you buy that type of work at the gallery for a lot of money and not, for instance, have 500 screens and pick 500 Flickr photographers and say, ok, that’s interesting what people are doing. And there’s lots of interesting stuff there.
S.G.: I think that’s why I was so drawn to your work. I think it’s standing at the hinge-point of a lot of these questions. And it’s dealing with questions of technology and context and exhibition space and distribution and copy and authorship and all of these central issues of what photography is at this point. If we’re going to write about photography, what do we write about? We’ve written about its entry into the museum, we’ve debunked that, now what?
J.S.: I’ve had a really interesting experience in my professional career. The people who understand best what I’m doing, the people I have the most interesting conversations with, are anthropologists. They get the point immediately. And I’ve had them say to me a couples of time, “Oh, these are great questions. We should start a study.” They have the same interest in pattern recognition.
Joachim Schmid is a photographer, writer, and publisher living and working in Berlin. His work often takes as its medium “found photographs,” which he fashions or reframes into original works. He has also been writing and lecturing about photography as a medium since the 1980s. His work can be seen both in exhibitions internationally and in the large number of artist’s books he has published. Notable works include a series of books, which is also occasionally an exhibition, called Other People’s Photographs (2008-2011), which explores patterns in the avalanche of amateur image production made possible by digital photographic technology and the internet. https://schmid.wordpress.com/
Sarah Goodrum is an art historian, writer, and university lecturer based in Berlin. She holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Southern California and currently teaches at the BTK University of Art and Design. Her research and writing focus on the history of photography, contemporary photographic practice, and photographers and photographic institutions in the GDR. www.sarahgoodrum.com