Posts Tagged ‘liminal

29
Aug
21

Exhibition: ‘Michael Schmidt: A new German Perspective’ at Jeu de Paume, Paris

Exhibition dates: 8th June – 29th August 2021

Curators: Thomas Weski and Laura Bielau

 

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder' 1981-82

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder (Berlin-Kreuzberg. Cityscapes)
1981-82
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Dark atmosphere of a grey reality

The contribution of German photographers to the development of photography in the 20th century cannot be underestimated. When we think of quantum leaps in the development of the medium and its languages, we can think of Wilhelm von Gloeden, August Sander, Lisette Model, Germaine Krull, Ilse Bing, Erich Salomon, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Bernd and Hiller Becher, Wolfgang Tillmans, Aenne Biermann, Erwin Blumenfeld, Bill Brandt, Candida Höfer, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand and many more too numerous to mention. And then we have the (mainly Jewish) photographers of the German diaspora of the 1920s-1940s who emigrated to all parts of Europe, South America, America and Australia and who went on to influence photographers in their adopted countries.

Perhaps there is something inherent in the German psyche which promotes a certain awareness, a certain understanding of the mechanics of photography. Perhaps this is a link between German psychology (such as Urformen: the original, archetypal form1), psychoanalysis (such as Freud’s term Das Unheimliche: “the uncanny” in the sense of something that produces unease and is disturbing) and photography – a relationship which promotes objective seeing, seeing things in new and unexpected ways. Perhaps this ability to perceive in new ways has something to do with Germany’s European roots and that continent’s history of war, destruction and reclamation, where the archetypes are constantly being dissolved and constructed – in a circle which leads us back to the roots of German psychology. These are only thoughts which are slowly forming, nascent thoughts in a long process of research, which could possibly be interesting, or not.

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Added to these many German photographers is another intelligent, inventive artist that I admire – an artist that also redefined the language of photography in the 20th century. His name is Michael Schmidt.

Much as Bill Brandt considered “atmosphere” a term fundamental in his images (“I only know it is a combination of elements … which reveals the subject as familiar and yet strange”) in order to capture the very essence of a place, so Schmidt’s inimitable understanding of his environment and its people, namely his beloved Berlin, allowed him to dissect and disseminate the dystopian “atmosphere” and habitus of its inhabitants.

Schmidt (and here I précis a lot of people) perceives and reacts to the world, offering through “fragmentation, condensation, abstraction” a “sense of space distorted in depth”, in which “existence is hollowed out to its extremes” that “take his subjects out of their historical anchorage” to offer a “harsh and completely unique view of the fragility of human existence” – “a subjective, deeply felt work of the life and suffering of people in the shadow of Berlin.”

“This is the strength of Michael Schmidt’s work. An ability to transcend the present – its present – and to fragment it in order to better represent it. Creations with shallow backgrounds, which play with nuances and break free from simple black and white to offer a shade of grey, evoking the rainy sky of Berlin. A true love letter, tortured, raw, deep and complex, to the city where it was born, grew and disappeared.”2

As Joe Lloyd has observed of Schmidt’s masterpiece Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) (1985-87) “It is difficult to imagine a future for these anxious youths, whose lives are encircled by an evil empire on the cusp of dissolution. The Berlin Wall appears on the verge of subsiding. Vegetation grows unbidden, new life to replace the old. Schmidt turns his camera on the city’s insignificant minutiae, a shadowy realm between the sights and, in doing so, captures its liminality.”3

Liminality is one of the key words I associate with the work of Michael Schmidt… the other being language.

Liminality is a term used to describe the psychological process of transitioning across boundaries and borders. The term “limen” comes from the Latin for threshold; it is literally the threshold separating one space from another. It is the place in the wall where people move from one room to another.4

As he probed and prodded the threshold of existence in his photography, Schmidt transited the line between representation and abstraction, photographing the ever mutable spaces of Berlin and the people that were stationed there, under the Wall – even as the subject matter he chose transitioned from dour city to blank officer workers, from women to children, old people and disaffected youths.

Schmidt sought new ways to transition across the boundaries and borders of both the city and his mind in order to create a “new reality” of visual language, not to reproduce real things as he said, but to show how things really are. As the curator Thomas Weski has observed, “”Every time he finished a series, he went through periods of turmoil where he looked for new ways to approach reality…”5

The liminal, interstitial spaces the artist creates, these fragments of time, these “shards of reality” are tough, gritty photographs – of love, desire, work, destitution, despair, loneliness, sadness and fortitude – realities expressed in sombre tones of grey that recite a sense of foreboding. Forty years after the end of the war, the clash of cultures between stoicism and rebellion, between rich and poor, between communism and freedom is still in full flight in a divided Berlin… for here (unlike Brandt’s photographs where the fragments are part of the whole) there is no unity, no ceasefire, no holistic healing, there is only a language of dissolution and despair. Here, there is no way hope can be deployed to distort one’s relationship with reality.

Schmidt’s relationship between photography and subject is always about the artist metaphorically “becoming naked” and open, pushing the boundaries of the possible when looking for new ways to approach reality. Schmidt’s language of the fragmentation bomb shows the benefits of working on language to break any self-imposed limits – to picture the ‘deep time’6 so intimately linked with the life of the city.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Footnotes

  1. “The original, archetypal form… the first form of a narrative from which all known variants emerged; the archetype version that provides a model and pattern for all variants (alternatively, Urform). The term comes from the German Urform (plural Urformen), meaning primitive form, original form, or archetype, and is derived from Ur, the mythological first city.
    Randal S. Allison. “Ur-Form,” in Thomas A. Green (ed.,). Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music and Art Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 1997, p. 823.
  2. Lou Tsatsas. “Michael Schmidt décompose Berlin au Jeu de Paume,” on the Fisheye Magazine website June 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021
  3. Joe Lloyd. “Michael Schmidt Retrospective: Photographs 1965-2014,” on the Studio International website 12/10/202 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021
  4. Larson, P. “Liminality,” in Leeming, D.A. (eds). Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Springer, Boston, MA, 2014
  5. Thomas Weski quoted in Laure Etienne. “Michael Schmidt: A New German Perspective,” on the Bind Magazine website 17 June 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.
  6. “As the Anangu people of Uluru explain, the land contains proof of a spoken narrative, like a photograph. The land’s markings are the archives, the inscriptions revealing and proving deep history stories.”
    Ann McGrath. “‘All things will outlast us’: how the Indigenous concept of deep time helps us understand environmental destruction,” on The Conversation website, August 19, 2020 [Online] Cited 29/08/2021.

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Many thankx to Jeu de Paume for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“Realism consists not in reproducing real things, but in showing how things really are.”

“Black and white are always the darkest grey and the lightest grey.”

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Michael Schmidt

 

“His language is a language of precision and his tool is the most simple one: a small, 35mm camera, and a few rolls of films. 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. They show what they show but they manage to retain an opacity, a mystery, and they become a support for our imagination.”

“Schmidt does not accuse, he simply reveals, and the interpretation is left to the viewer. He can do so because he has confidence in the power of his medium and confidence in the intelligence of the viewer.”

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Luc Delahaye

 

“His photography no longer follows a means of pure documentation, but rather formulates a dystopian attitude towards the life of a generation shortly before the fall of the wall in surprising image contexts. Schmidt develops a world of breaks and gaps that defies any claim to a sovereign overview.”

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Einar Schleef

 

“Amongst the pages of photographer Michael Schmidt’s seminal book, ‘Waffenruhe’ – a fragmented psychological portrait of West Berlin shot between 1985 and 1987 – is an image of an outstretched wrist, the camera’s flash igniting a jagged scar across its milky skin. The space opposite is obscured with a blank pull-out page that expands to reveal a tree in full bloom, bright flowers swelling between branches. The Berlin Wall looms in the background, like a shadow sunshine can’t dispel. In Schmidt’s Waffenruhe, life and death cohabitate – existence is hollowed out to its extremes. Four decades after the end of World War II, Waffenruhe (German for “ceasefire”) captured the gloom of a bisected city as it waited for the smoke to clear.”

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Ashleigh Kane. “Why Michael Schmidt is the perfect photographer for our dystopia,” on the Highsnobiety website February 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021

 

 

 

 

Exposition “Michael Schmidt. Une autre photographie allemande” 

 

Berlin-Wedding 1976-78

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Müller-Ecke Seestrasse, Berlin-Wedding' (Berlin-Wedding) 1976-78

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Müller-Ecke Seestrasse, Berlin-Wedding (Berlin-Wedding)
1976-78
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'City Inspector at the Wedding District Office' 1976-78

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
City Inspector at the Wedding District Office
1976-78
From Berlin-Wedding
Silver gelatin print
43.4 x 46cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'City Inspector at work in his Wedding District Office' 1976-78

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
City Inspector at work in his Wedding District Office
1976-78
From Berlin-Wedding
Silver gelatin print
43.4 x 46cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Schüler der 4. Klasse, Grundschule, Berlin-Wedding' (Pupil, elementary school, Berlin-Wedding) 1976-78

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Schüler der 4. Klasse, Grundschule, Berlin-Wedding (Pupil, elementary school, Berlin-Wedding)
1976-78
From Berlin-Wedding
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Schüler der 4. Klasse, Grundschule, Berlin-Wedding' (CM1 pupil, primary school, Berlin-Wedding) 1976-78

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Schüler der 4. Klasse, Grundschule, Berlin-Wedding (CM1 pupil, primary school, Berlin-Wedding)
1976-78
From Berlin-Wedding
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Berlin-Wedding' 1976-78

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Berlin-Wedding
1976-78
Silver gelatin print
24 x 30cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Jeu de Paume in Paris is the second venue of the major retrospective of Michael Schmidt’s work. Michael Schmidt (1945-2014) occupies a unique position in contemporary German photography and internationally. Born in Berlin and with no formal training in photography, he discovered the medium as a mode of artistic expression in the mid-1960s. For each of his themes he developed his own approach to reality. His oeuvre owing to continual exploration and innovation has been seminal for a younger generation of photographers. The exhibition, the most comprehensive to date, offers a complete overview of his oeuvre from 1965 to 2014.

After the presentation at Jeu de Paume, Paris (2021) and Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwartskunst Berlin (2020), the exhibition will be on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid (September 22–February 28, 2022) and the Albertina Museum in Vienna (March 24–June 12, 2022).

Michael Schmidt (1945-2014) occupies a unique position in contemporary German photography. Born in Berlin, he was self-taught, adopting photography as his artistic medium in the mid-1960s. For each of his themes, he developed his own approach to reality. The Michael Schmidt retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, the most comprehensive to date, offers a complete overview of his oeuvre from 1965 to 2014.

Press release from Jeu de Paume

 

“At the end of the 1970s, with the series ‘Berlin-Wedding’, Michael Schmidt imposed a very rigid set of rules on himself in order to achieve a form of neutrality, if such a thing is possible… He later said he felt like he had pushed himself into a corner with these rules, and in the early 1980s he struggled to relax them. He went back to shooting spontaneously, camera in hand and no longer on a tripod. This led to “Waffenruhe (Ceasefire),” where he broke free from those rules. It became less a question of delivering a precise description than of communicating a feeling.”

~ Thomas Weski quoted in Laure Etienne. “Michael Schmidt: A New German Perspective,” on the Bind Magazine website 17 June 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

“Every time he finished a series, he went through periods of turmoil where he looked for new ways to approach reality… He described himself as a “dead-end photographer” who would get into one lane and needed a long time to get out of it. ”

~ Thomas Weski quoted in Laure Etienne. “Michael Schmidt: A New German Perspective,” on the Bind Magazine website 17 June 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

“Michael Schmidt’s raw, harsh, and fragmented photographs of Waffenruhe are less documents of the existing situation at that time than they are creating a certain dark atmosphere, which echoed the ‘no future’-feeling of my generation.”

~ Thomas Weski

 

“Man is at the centre of the environment. He is shaped by it and he shapes it… As such, I don’t want to show him isolated, but in his environment, I want to show how he lives, where he works, what he does in his free time.”

~ Michael Schmidt quoted in Laure Etienne. “Michael Schmidt: A New German Perspective,” on the Bind Magazine website 17 June 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

 

Berlin nach 1945

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Berlin nach 1945' (Berlin after 1945) 1980

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Berlin nach 1945 (Berlin after 1945)
1980
Silver gelatin print
23.4 x 29.2cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

In 1980 Michael Schmidt photographed his series “Berlin after 1945”. West Berlin already had a reputation as a young and rebellious city. Schmidt portrayed his hometown quite differently: grey on grey, barren, if not dreary. With his approach of portraying the human-shaped living environment instead of untouched nature, Schmidt became a representative of the New Topographics movement, which had recently emerged in the USA: these photographers no longer focused on an ideal conception of landscape, but rather on human intervention.

Google translated from Michael Schmidt. “So fühlte sich das Leben in Berlin an,” on the Zeit Online website 17 October 2020 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Berlin nach 1945' (Berlin after 1945) 1980

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Berlin nach 1945 (Berlin after 1945)
1980
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Berlin nach 1945' (Berlin after 1945) 1980

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Berlin nach 1945 (Berlin after 1945)
1980
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Berlin-Kreuzberg 1969-1973

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder' 1981-82

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder (Berlin-Kreuzberg. Urban views)
1981-82
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

How Schmidt broke away from the strict image structure of his photographs can be seen in his series “Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder 1981-82”. The camera moves closer to the sitter and no longer locks them in a strict composition.

Google translated from Michael Schmidt. “So fühlte sich das Leben in Berlin an,” on the Zeit Online website 17 October 2020 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder' (Berlin-Kreuzberg. Urban views) 1982

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder (Berlin-Kreuzberg. Urban views)
1982
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder' 1981-82

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder (Berlin-Kreuzberg. Urban views)
1981-82
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder' 1981-82

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder (Berlin-Kreuzberg. Urban views)
1981-82
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder' 1981-82

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder (Berlin-Kreuzberg. Urban views)
1981-82
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

The bulk of Schmidt’s work in the 70s and early 80s was commissioned by local authorities, and served as a survey of West Berlin’s crumbing Wall-side districts. If they wanted straightforward documentation, they should have turned elsewhere. In Kreuzberg, Schmidt captured two tree trunks rising from the ground as if a pair of legs, and in Wedding an empty phone box, the pages of its directory left open. Schmidt’s Berlin is riddled with holes. We see a row of tenements from behind, naked and exposed by the loss of their adjoining street. A similar – or perhaps the same – row is glimpsed diagonally through a gap in a scaffolding platform. This is a city scrambled, quite unlike the straight-ahead perspectives of Struth’s near-contemporaneous Unconscious Places series. When we see council employees, the walls of their chintzy apartments and spartan offices seem like armour against the bleak outside.

Text from Joe Lloyd. “Michael Schmidt Retrospective: Photographs 1965-2014,” on the Studio International website 12/10/202 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg' (Berlin-Kreuzberg) 1969-1973

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Berlin-Kreuzberg (Berlin-Kreuzberg)
1969-1973
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Foreword

Michael Schmidt (1945-2014) occupies a unique position in contemporary German photography. Born in Berlin, he was self-taught, adopting photography as his artistic medium in the mid- 1960s. For each of his themes, he developed his own approach to reality. The Michael Schmidt retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, the most comprehensive to date, offers a complete overview of his oeuvre from 1965 to 2014.

Schmidt initially focused on Berlin in his work, receiving commissions in the early 1970s from district offices and from the Berlin Senate on districts such as Kreuzberg and Wedding and on social themes. The Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) book and exhibition project, a visually stunning psychological study of the still divided city, which was shown in Berlin for the first time in 1987, brought Schmidt international renown. With Ein-heit/U-ni-ty, a group of works examining the unification process, he shifted his focus away from the world of his native city.

Schmidt’s oeuvre comprises portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes. His work highlights the importance of urban space, the continued relevance of history, female identity, the role of the province and the significance of nature. In his last project, he highlighted the contemporary food industry.

In addition to providing a glimpse of sometimes very rich ensembles through original prints, this retrospective also includes work prints, book projects and archive documents. As far as possible, it respects Schmidt’s own approach to presenting and displaying his works. His career was exemplary for the way he endlessly refined his photographic practice and explored new publication formats. The exhibition thus reveals a unique approach to photography in the context of German post-war and contemporary photography, at odds with the Subjective Photography of Otto Steinert and the Düsseldorf School centred around Bernd and Hilla Becher. Schmidt’s oeuvre is now seen as one of the outstanding pillars of photography in the history of German twentieth-century art. As well as celebrating the work he produced in the course of his lifetime, the exhibition seeks to cover the development of photography as a mode of artistic expression since the 1970s.

Thomas Weski, curator of the exhibition

 

Introduction

On the occasion of the reopening, Jeu de Paume offers for the first time in France a large dedicated exhibition to photographer Michael Schmidt, considered one of the major figures of 20th century German art. This large chronological retrospective pays tribute to the artist through original prints, unpublished works and a vast corpus of archives that illustrate the evolution of his work spanning nearly five decades.

A Model

Michael Schmidt wrote a section of the history of photography. Through his work as a photographer and teacher he notably influenced artists like Andreas Gursky, with whom he befriends at the end of the 1970s. He is still a model for a whole generation of young photographers.

West Berlin

Self-taught photographer born in Berlin in 1945, Michael Schmidt devoted most of from his photography to his hometown, more particularly in West Berlin, where he will live until his death in 2014. The districts of Kreuzberg and, more particularly Wedding, were his favourite places. Initially portrayed in a purely documentary style (most often of order), Schmidt will detach himself from traditional visual language and in the 1980s look for a more daring vocabulary.

Postwar

Beginning in the middle of 1960s the postwar work of Michael Schmidt can be considered as a process of the quest for artistic identity, and also as an illustration of the development artistic photography in postwar Germany.

Grey

In the late 1970s, grey becomes the chromatic element central to the photographer’s work, which he considers a full colour. Wishing to describe the world around him, the artist cannot be limited to the use of black and white, who are too Manichean for his taste. The world is undefined, not so neat and clear. Schmidt is looking for more nuance, he has need a wider palette. He draws, then, in these grey tones that we find in the skies of Berlin, the cityscapes and interior views where characters appear weakly illuminated.

 

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the birth of Michael Schmidt, Jeu de Paume presents a large retrospective of this artist, considered one of the major pillars of the history of 20th century German art.

A tribute to a great photographer, this exhibition will present originals, unpublished work prints, book projects and other archives illustrating the evolution of his artistic work. The exhibition also highlights the process of recognising photography as a form of artistic expression in Germany and Europe from the 1970s.

Like Bernd and Hilla Becher, Michael Schmidt is among the most influential post-war photographers. He tirelessly developed his work for five decades. Through the publication of his work in the form of books and installations, always in dialogue with their place of exhibition, he developed different types of innovative presentation. By the incessant renewal of its formal language and by the choice of its themes, Michael Schmidt wrote a part of the history of photography and is today a role model for a whole generation of young photographers.

Born in Berlin on October 6, 1945, it was in this city that he lived and worked until his death in 2014. This autodidact works as a photographer from the mid-1970s, initially exclusively in his hometown. This is where the series dedicated to Kreuzberg and Wedding saw the light of day, – two districts of West Berlin –, which already go beyond the simple description of a neighbourhood, taking on a broader meaning. It is with the project, book and exhibition developed in collaboration with the director and playwright Einar Schleef, Waffenruhe (Ceasefire), first presented in Berlin in 1987, that Michael Schmidt does undeniably artistic work.

This series is made up of raw images with a loaded atmosphere, which draw a very personal portrait of the city near the end of the cold war – and of its youth – a city still cut in half, shortly before the change of epoch.

Michael Schmidt abandons this focus on the thematic universe of Berlin with the series Ein-heit (Uni-té), in which he explores the visual languages ​​of the different forms of society and different political systems that marked Germany in the 20th century. He uses on this occasion already mediatised images that he mixes with photographs taken by himself, publishing everything in a book without text. The first exhibition of this series is in 1996 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Schmidt was thus the first German photographer for decades to have personal exposure in this place. Subsequently, he devotes other work to the image of the woman, to the role of regions and the importance of nature. His last big series, Lebensmittel (Foodstuffs), in which he explores contemporary food production, has earned him the Pictet Prize just a few days before his death.

 

The exhibition

First photographs, commissioned works and series, 1965-1985

Michael Schmidt discovered an interest in photography when he was working in the West Berlin police force. Although he joined amateur photography clubs, he was chiefly self-taught, working hard to improve his technique. In the mid-1960s, he took the first photographs that he did not reject later on. Although the motifs in these early photographs vary greatly, they all defy the quick readability that is usually associated with the medium.

From his earliest photographic work of the mid-1960s to Germany’s reunification, Schmidt chose his native city of Berlin as his main subject, examining it from various angles. By 1973 he was working as a professional photographer, having been commissioned by the district office in Kreuzberg to do a book on the neighbourhood. It was published in the same year, with a second edition being printed almost immediately. It was followed by commissions from other city districts and Berlin’s Senate. In Die berufstätige Frau in Kreuzberg (The Working Woman in Kreuzberg) he depicted a typical day in the life of two women juggling work and leisure.

In the early 1970s he began teaching photography courses at colleges of further education. In 1976, he founded the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography) at the Volkshochschule Kreuzberg, which continued until 1986. Works by contemporary American photographers were exhibited there that had not previously been accessible to the German public. From 1976 to 1978, he photographed the Berlin-Wedding district and its inhabitants in a strictly documentary style. He made prints in rich shades of grey and published the series in 1978.

Between 1978 and 1980 he photographed Berlin’s Friedrichstadt neighbourhood in the south of the city, which was badly damaged during the Second World War. These photographs capture the mood of post-war West Berlin, a city scarred by gaps between buildings, brownfield sites and fire walls. Dominant motifs include urban wastelands and utility buildings, which he photographed in diffuse light using a large plate camera. In these works, Schmidt found pictorial solutions that straddle the boundary between documentation and abstraction. His Berlin nach 45 (Berlin after 1945) was not published until 2005, twenty-five years after the photographs were taken.

In 1980 in another project funded by the Berlin Senate he documented the everyday lives of four people dealing with chronic illness or disability. This work was published under the title Benachteiligt (Disadvantaged).

With the photo book Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stadtbilder, published in 1983, he began turning away from the traditional documentary idiom, experimenting with a more subjective approach.

In the mid-1990s, Schmidt identified his archive as a potent new source for reinterpreting earlier work. It assumed growing importance for him and he returned to it with increasing regularity in order to subject his early work to a critical re-examination and to make new prints. In the late 1990s, for example, for his project Menschenbilder (Ausschnitte) (Pictures of People (Excerpts)), he presented re-framed versions of an older series of portraits. Divorced from their previous context, the portraits became emblems of the human condition.

At that time, Schmidt also published Selbst (Self), a series of self-portraits dating from the mid-1980s, in which he appeared directly and unsparingly, in a self-critical attitude.

 

Waffenruhe (Ceasefire), 1985-1987

Unlike the studiedly sober photos of his earlier series, the portrait of the still divided city that Schmidt created in the mid-1970s in the book and exhibition project Waffenruhe, with its condensed, fragmentary, strongly contrasting black and white photographs, is highly subjective and multifaceted. With this work group, the photographer used a more evocative approach to convey the complex and moribund political situation in Berlin.

Here Schmidt eschewed a documentary approach in favour of unexpected pictorial sequences that express the dystopian attitude of a generation living before the fall of the Wall. Schmidt creates a picture of a world marked by fragmentation and discontinuity which remains open to interpretation. The photographs in the artist’s book are interwoven with a text by theatre director and writer Einar Schleef, which offers a very personal and uncompromising take on the fragility of human existence.

The project, funded with public money as part of the celebrations marking Berlin’s 750th anniversary, was first shown in the Berlinische Galerie at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in the immediate vicinity of the Wall. When the Waffenruhe series was included in a group exhibition at MoMA in New York, in 1988, it brought Schmidt immediate international notoriety.

 

Portraits, 1987-1994
Natur (Nature), 1987-1997
89/90, 1989-1990
Architektur (Architecture), 1989-1991

In between his major series, Michael Schmidt created work of more modest scope, which afforded him more artistic freedom and enabled him to hone his photographic method and pictorial language. The works that followed Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) are characterised by their tight framing, shallow depth of field and formats that were unusually large for the time. In them Schmidt focused increasingly on architecture and portraiture, unrestrained by any concern for intelligibility. Motifs became detached from their urban or personal contexts, functioning as emblems of metropolitan life, history and society. The series Architektur (Architecture) and Portraits are distinguished by the presence and materiality of their objects and the immediacy of encounter.

In 1989, Schmidt turned his attention to his native city for one last time, recording visual traces of German unification. He found many of his motifs in what used to be the border zone between the wall and no man’s land. This work, entitled 89/90, was not published until 2010.

Similarly, the photos he was taking around the same time of the rural landscape near his second home in Lower Saxony were not published until much later, when he assembled them in the artist book Nature shortly before his death. The book testifies to the importance he attached to landscape during this part of his life.

 

Ein-heit (U-ni-ty), 1989-1994

This series, which took shape during reunification, is concerned with history and the universal symbolism of the dominant social systems in Germany since 1933: National Socialism, Socialism and Democracy. This is the context for the photographer’s examination of the individual’s essential role in society and the stand they choose to take.

For Schmidt, a published image was an integral part of objective reality and no less worthy of being photographed than, say, a person or a building. In Ein-heit/U-ni-ty, he took this approach further. His photographs of photographs, which account for roughly one third of this series, comprise severely cropped and occasionally inverted photographs together with straightforward renderings of existing photographic material, which he typically combined with his own photographs. In so doing, Schmidt reformulates the content of the original photographs for his own purposes, depriving them of their unambiguousness and added further layers of possible meaning. He also used the technique of repeating and varying motifs he had deployed in some of his early works. Arranged in this way, the photographs form the grammar of a unique visual idiom, one that is challenging for viewers, but rich in associations. Ein-heit/U-ni-ty premiered in 1996 at MoMA in New York, where it was the first solo exhibition devoted to a German photographer for several decades.

 

Frauen (Women), 1997-1999

In the late 1990s, Michael Schmidt embarked on a series of portraits of young men and women. He eventually focused on women from the younger generation, shooting portraits and photographs of their bodies, both fully dressed and in the nude. In Schmidt’s view, these young women’s own sense of self-worth was increasingly reflected in their relationship to their own bodies. His photographs examined how a sense of individuality was being affected by socially mediated norms and ideals. The phenomenon made itself felt in a wide range of spheres, from the choice of outer garments and underwear to the stylisation of the body, even the private parts. He reveals the traces left by this growing imposition of uniformity on physical appearance in the form of posture and bearing, scars and lesions.

Schmidt interpreted these phenomena as the formative collective experience of an entire generation, as was evident in his exhibitions of the Frauen group of works. He presented the works as a block or tableau, emphasising what this age group had in common instead of the individual. Closer inspection reveals that this group of works added another facet to the photographer’s preoccupation with the role of the individual in society.

In 2000, Schmidt published the Frauen series in an eponymous artist’s book. At the 6th Berlin Biennale in 2010, he showed extracts in the form of full-page ads in a national newspaper and as posters in public spaces.

 

Irgendwo (Somewhere), 2001-2004
Lebensmittel (Foodstuff), 2006-2010

Following Germany’s reunification, Michael Schmidt never photographed Berlin again. Instead, he developed an interest in provincial scenes, as these were in his view both interchangeable and conducive to a sense of identity. Having acquired a caravan, he and his wife set off on tours across Germany – sixteen in all. He published the resulting images in an artist’s book entitled Irgendwo (Somewhere). They were exhibited outside Germany’s big cities. The experiences he gained on these trips and his increasing interest in eating and drinking, mirroring that of German society as a whole, led to a series entitled Lebensmittel (Foodstuff). For this, Schmidt carried out research in Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Spain, where he visited sausage, pasta and cheese factories, fish farms, fruit and vegetable farms, fattening farms and abattoirs, green houses, olive plantations, insect farms and food processing plants.

In Lebensmittel (Foodstuff), Michael Schmidt used colour for the first time in his work, in addition to his customary black and white. The pictures are untitled and make no reference to location, making it impossible to pin them down geographically. Schmidt developed further the method he first used in Ein-heit/U-ni-ty, creating unsettling works that sometimes fuse two different halves or contain repeated images or shapes, or else variations of motifs. The result undermines belief in the documentary power of photography and the universal validity of the isolated shot.

Often it remains unclear what foodstuff is actually being presented. Both failsafe identification and seasonality have become things of the past, with production now oriented towards standardisation, alienation and globalisation rather than individuality, transparency and regional context. Schmidt critiques the excesses of an economic system that is notorious for its wastefulness. Today’s crises make it clear that we have arrived at the limits of agricultural growth. Schmidt’s photographs reflect this fact and the loss of confidence in the idea of permanent growth.

For this series, he was awarded the prestigious Prix Pictet only a few days before his death in 2014.

 

Waffenruhe (Ceasefire), 1985-1987

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) (1985-87), inaugurated the second act of Schmidt’s career. It remains his masterpiece, and one of the most intoxicating photographic projects of the late-20th century. Laying aside the realism of his first two decades, Schmidt instead shot voraciously without quarter, before embarking on an intensive process of editing and ordering. The final works were then exhibited like a continuous reel, a sequence whose parts combine in the mind to construct a place, an atmosphere and narratives. …

This is the Berlin of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, except without that film’s passage to hope. Schmidt’s greyscale world never erupts into technicolour. It is difficult to imagine a future for these anxious youths, whose lives are encircled by an evil empire on the cusp of dissolution. The Berlin Wall appears on the verge of subsiding. Vegetation grows unbidden, new life to replace the old. Schmidt turns his camera on the city’s insignificant minutiae, a shadowy realm between the sights and, in doing so, captures its liminality.

Text from Joe Lloyd. “Michael Schmidt Retrospective: Photographs 1965-2014,” on the Studio International website 12/10/202 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021

 

“This is the strength of Michael Schmidt’s work. An ability to transcend the present – its present – and to fragment it in order to better represent it. Creations with shallow backgrounds, which play with nuances and break free from simple black and white to offer a shade of grey, evoking the rainy sky of Berlin. A true love letter, tortured, raw, deep and complex, to the city where it was born, grew and disappeared.”

Lou Tsatsas. “Michael Schmidt décompose Berlin au Jeu de Paume,” on the Fisheye Magazine website June 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

With “Waffenruhe” from 1985-87, Schmidt moved away from the documentary and found a new photographic language. He blocked the viewer’s view of the subject – here with a black line – and made the visual obstacle itself the motif. Schmidt continued to take photos in Berlin, only that his photographs increasingly irritated the view of the city.

Google translated from Michael Schmidt. “So fühlte sich das Leben in Berlin an,” on the Zeit Online website 17 October 2020 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Schmidt also revised the imagery of his portraits in the “Ceasefire” series: the surroundings disappear, and the direct expression of the sitter takes its place. The blurring reinforces the impression that this is a spontaneous snapshot.

Google translated from Anonymous. “Michael Schmidt. So fühlte sich das Leben in Berlin an,” on the Zeit Online website 17 October 2020 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Schmidt increasingly photographed surfaces and materials such as the many graffiti that have long characterised Berlin’s aesthetics. He was interested in how people and time inscribe themselves on it.

Google translated from Anonymous. “Michael Schmidt. So fühlte sich das Leben in Berlin an,” on the Zeit Online website 17 October 2020 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

“Through Schmidt’s dramatic perspective and keen eye for telling details and subtle nuances, he creates an air of inconsolable emptiness in his images of the Wall and those affected by it. These photographs will leave you speechless.”

.
Martin Parr. The Photobook: A History Volume 2 2006

 

 

In the following decades, his approach became more impressionistic. He would shoot thousands of frames for each project without thinking too much about the end result, which would emerge later out of rigorous editing. Increasingly, he was drawn to series over single images, atmosphere over documentary representation. The Berlin that emerges out of Waffenruhe is a darkly atmospheric place, where nothing is quite what it seems and everything – a bandaged tree, a bank of earth beneath a wall, a stuffed toy criss-crossed by barbed wire – is loaded with ominous suggestion. The Wall is a looming presence, but there are images that evoke an altogether more intimate kind of dislocation, not least the stark portraits of Schmidt’s sad-looking daughter – in one, she has a bandaged wrist.

Sean O’Hagan. “Michael Schmidt obituary,” on the Guardian website 29 May, 2014 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
90 x 69.6cm
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Waffenruhe swerved any explicit documentation of West Berlin’s political stasis for haunting photographs of its dilapidated buildings, unkempt nature, a defaced Swastika, the inside of a watchtower, cityscapes obscured by shadowy figures, and portraits of disillusioned young people. While the wall is occasionally present, its presence is unwavering. Waffenruhe was a collaboration with Einar Schleef, a playwright and theatre director who left East for West Germany in 1976. For his part, Schleef penned the inner thoughts of a divorced man living with his estranged daughter’s rabbit in the now-empty family house. As historian and fellow photographer Janos Frecot writes in the book’s closing pages: “The text itself does not simply tell a story, but instead narrates a finding, a wounding, a consciousness of a dully nagging pain in an apparent stillness: Berlin 1987.” Structured as one long-running paragraph, Schleef’s text cuts through the book’s centre, like the wall itself. The lack of white space around the text is oppressive, almost suffocating.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'Untitled' from 'Waffenruhe' (Ceasefire) 1985-87

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
Untitled from Waffenruhe (Ceasefire)
1985-87
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Portraits 1987-1994

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Portraits' (Portraits) 1987-1994

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Portraits (Portraits)
1987-1994
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Schmidt’s portraits from the 1980s are reminiscent of private photos. Their meaning does not arise from complex picture contexts, but from the direct expression, the presence of the portrayed and the associations of the viewers.

Google translated from Anonymous. “Michael Schmidt. So fühlte sich das Leben in Berlin an,” on the Zeit Online website 17 October 2020 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021.

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Portraits' (Portraits) 1989

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Portraits (Portraits)
1989
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Architektur 1989-1991

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Architektur' (Architecture) 1989-1991

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Architektur (Architecture)
1989-1991
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Ein-heit (Uni-ty) 1991-94

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Ein-heit' (Uni-ty) 1991-94

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)
1991-94
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

For U-nit-y, made between 1991 and 1994, Schmidt turned his eye on his newly reunited city, this time using found images from newspapers, magazines and propaganda material from Nazi and communist pamphlets alongside his own photographs. The end result is a highly personal evocation of a reborn city still haunted by unresolved issues from the recent past and a collective anxiety about the future. His images evoke both the weight of history and the pulse of the everyday, summoning up a Berlin of the imagination that is both solid and dreamlike.

Sean O’Hagan. “Michael Schmidt obituary,” on the Guardian website 29 May, 2014 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)' 1991-94

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)
1991-94
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)' 1991-94

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)
1991-94
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Although unforeseen at the time, two years after Waffenruhe was published, the Berlin Wall was torn down. For Schmidt’s next book, he explored East and West Germany’s reunification in Ein-heit (or U-Ni-Ty) – signalled to in its split title. The country was beginning to heal from its deep and bloody ideological divisions, five decades after the Nazis took power in 1933. Ein-heit, made between 1991 and 1994, surveyed the relationship between the individual and the state, and the grappling of national identity. For the first time in his career, Schmidt moved beyond Berlin and reckoned with Germany’s past and present through found and new photography (around half of the Ein-heit‘s 163 images were repurposed from old newspapers, propaganda materials, and magazine clippings).

Ashleigh Kane. “Why Michael Schmidt is the perfect photographer for our dystopia,” on the Highsnobiety website February 2021 [Online] Cited 12/08/2021

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)' 1991-94

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)
1991-94
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)' 1991-94

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)
1991-94
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)' 1991-94

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)
1991-94
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014) 'No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)' 1991-94

 

Michael Schmidt (German, 1945-2014)
No title, Ein-heit (Uni-ty)
1991-94
Silver gelatin print
© Michael Schmidt, Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

 

 

Biography

1945

Born in Berlin-Kreuzberg on 6 October.

1950

His family moves several times between West Berlin and Erkner, which is near East Berlin.

1963

Joins the West Berlin riot police.

1965

Starts taking photographs.

1969

Teaches a photography course at the Volkshochschule Kreuzberg, a local adult education centre.

1970

Teaches photography courses at adult education centres, with an emphasis on encouraging personal expression in his students.

1973

Leaves the police force and starts working as a freelance photographer while continuing to teach at various adult education centres. His exhibition Kreuzberger Motive is organised by the Berlin Museum and the Bezirksamt Kreuzberg (district office). His book Berlin Kreuzberg is published.

1974

He organises the exhibition Ausländische Mitbürger (Foreign Fellow Citizens in Kreuzberg), which features his own work together with photographs submitted by Kreuzberg residents from migrant backgrounds. Commission for a book on his hometown, which is published in 1978 under the title Berlin. Stadlandschaft und Menschen (Berlin. Urban Landscape and People).

1975

Exhibits his series Senioren in Berlin (Senior Citizens in Berlin), commissioned by the Berlin Senate, in a U-Bahn station. Develops the concept for his Werkstatt für Photographie (Photography Workshop) in West Berlin. He is assigned by the Senate to photograph Die berufstätige Frau in Kreuzberg (The Working Woman in Kreuzberg), which is exhibited at the Rathaus Kreuzberg.

1976

Stops working in the field of applied photography in order to focus on his own photographic projects. Opens the Werkstatt für Photographie at the adult education centre in Kreuzberg, taking over artistic and organisational management. With its intensive programme of exhibitions, workshops and specialised courses, the Werkstatt achieves international renown. It would host the first solo exhibitions in Germany, and in some cases Europe, of American photographers like Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Lewis Baltz, Larry Clark, William Eggleston and John Gossage.

1977

Quits as director of the Werkstatt für Photographie, but continues to teach and give advice there.

1978

His series Berlin-Wedding is shown at the Rathaus Wedding, in conjunction with the release of his book Berlin-Wedding. 1979 Teaches courses in documentary photography at the University of Essen. 1980 He applies to the Senate to photograph people with disabilities and is accepted. The series is published in a small book titled Benachteiligt (Disadvantaged). Photographs post-war architecture in the area around Anhalterbahnhof, West Berlin, which suffered massive destruction in the war. The topic would be the focus of the Internationale Bauausstellung (International Building Exposition) in 1984. Berlin nach 45 would not be published until 2005.

1981

Stops his activities at the Werkstatt für Photographie, which closes in 1986.

1984

Receives the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach – Foundation Grant for Contemporary Photography.

1985-88

Teaches at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), Berlin.

1987

His book Waffenruhe (Ceasefire), a collaboration with theatre director and writer Einar Schleef, is published and the work group is exhibited at Martin-Gropius-Bau as part of the 750th anniversary celebrations of Berlin.

1988

Waffenruhe is shown as part of the group exhibition New Photography 4 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

1989

He starts working on a project, in which he examines the repercussions of reunification and which he later titled Ein-heit/U-ni-ty.

1995

First retrospective of his photographic career at the Museum Folkwang, Essen. He uses the exhibition to go through his archive spanning his life’s work and selecting works that are of particular importance to him. In the future, he returns regularly to his archive in order to generate new works.

1996

Ein-heit/U-ni-ty is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and published as an artist’s book. It is the first solo exhibition of a German photographer at MoMA for several decades.

1999

Appointed to the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts), Berlin. He co-founds the Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive.

2000

Publishes his portrait series Frauen (Women).

2005

Exhibits and publishes Irgendwo (Somewhere), which he photographed on 16 trips across Germany examining the relevance of the provinces.

2006

Takes part in the 5th Berlin Biennale and shows Ein-heit at Kunst-Werke, Berlin.

2010

Is invited to participate in the 6th Berlin Biennale and shows Frauen in public and in the media in the form of placards and full-page advertisements. Major exhibition Grau als Farbe. Fotografien bis 2009 (Grey as colour. Photographs until 2009) at the Haus der Kunst, Munich.

2013

Exhibits Lebensmittel as part of the main exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico at the Venice Biennale. After returning to Berlin, he is diagnosed with cancer. While receiving treatment he edits and designs the artist’s book Natur (Nature).

2014

Wins the Fifth Prix Pictet Award, the prestigious international award for photography and sustainability. Michael Schmidt dies on 24 May in Berlin.

 

 

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21
Sep
18

Photographs: R. B. Talfor. ‘Photographic Views of the Red River Raft’ 1873

September 2018

 

Robert B. Talfor. Nitroglycerine works at station between Raft Nos. 26 and 27. Plate B of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Nitroglycerine works at station between Raft Nos. 26 and 27. Plate B of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

“In May Lieutenant Woodruff’s careful plans for using “tri-nitro-glycerine” to hasten the removal process, were put into operation and proved quite successful. It continued to be used on a half dozen of the rafts the last of May and through the month of June as the main channel of the river was widened.”

Hubert Humphreys. “Photographic Views of the Red River Raft, 1873,” p. 107

 

 

One of the great privileges of writing and researching for this website is the ability to pull disparate sources together from all over the world, so that the some of the most valuable information can be stored in one place – a kind of meta-posting, with informed comment, upon the context of place, time, identity and image. This is one such posting.

I had never known of these photographs before, nor of their photographer R.B. Talfor of whom I can find little information. I never knew the story of the Great Raft of the Red River, nor the heroism of Lieutenant Eugene A. Woodruff, in charge of the clearing operations, who sacrificed his life to look after others in the yellow fever epidemic in Shreveport in 1873. These stories deserve to be told, deserve a wider audience, for it is all we have left of this time and place.

The 113 photographic views, hand coloured albumen prints “are remarkable for both their historical narrative and aesthetic integrity.” They document not only the landscape but the lives of the crews working on the river. As Woodruff notes in his report of July 1, 1873, “With the view is a photographic map of the raft region, with location and axis of the camera for each view marked upon it and numbered to correspond with the number on the view. This album full of photographs, affording a complete and truthful panorama of the raft, will give a better idea of the nature of the work performed and of the character of the country than could be obtained form the most elaborate description.”

In other words, the photographs and accompanying map are a scientific and objective ordering of life and nature, “affording a complete and truthful panorama of the raft”, the nature of the work performed and the character of the country. Truth, panorama, nature, character. And yet, when you look at the whole series of photographs, they become something much more than just objective rendition.

Firstly, while Talfor maps out his “points of view” he resists, but for a few occasions, the 19th century axiom of placing a man in the landscape… to give the landscape scale by including a human figure. In their aesthetic integrity he lets the landscape speak for itself. But if you look at the sequencing of the plates in the album you observe that he alternates between photographs of open stretches of river taken in overcast / end of day light, and plates filled with a dark, mysterious, chthonic atmosphere, as though we the viewer are inhabiting a nightmarish underworld. Into this dark romanticism, this American Gothic, he throws great tree stumps being hauled out of the water, wind whipping through the trees (seen in the length of exposure of the images) and men with cable and plunger standing stock still in front of a tent full of NITROGLYCERIN! DANGER! KEEP AWAY!

Secondly, Talfor’s hand colouring of the photographs seems to add to this almost William Blake-esque, melancholy romanticism. While the light of the setting sun and its reflection over water add to the sublime nature of the scene, the clouds, in particular in plates such as XCVL and XXVI (note the tiny man among the logs), seem to roil in the sky, like mysterious wraiths of a shadowy atmosphere. It is as though Talfor was illustrating a poem of extreme complexity, not just an objective, social documentary enterprise of time and place, but a rendition of the light and darkness of nature as seen through the eyes of God. A transcendent liminality inhabits these images, one in which we cross the threshold into a transitional state between one world and the next, where the photographs proffer a ‘releasement toward things’ which, as Heidegger observes, grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way.

Marcus

.
These images are published under fair use on a non-commercial basis for educational and research purposes only. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. The whole series can be see on the Swann Auction Galleries website.

 

 

“We stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery… Releasement towards things and openness to the mystery belong together. They grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way…”

.
MartinHeidegger. ‘Discourse on Thinking’. New York: Harper & Row, 1966, pp. 55-56

 

 

Photographic Views of the Red River Raft

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operation to remove obstacles from the Red River in Louisiana, 1873

113 hand coloured photographic views of the Red River made in April and May 1873, under the direction of C. W. Howell, U. S. Capt.; Corps of Engineers, and E. A. Woodruff, 1st Lieut. U. S. Corps of Engineers; to accompany the annual report on operations for the removal of the Raft; during the year ending June 30, 1873. The photographer was Robert B. Talfor. The portion of the Red River affected reached from Natchitoches Parish through north Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Hand-coloured albumen prints, the images measuring 7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm), mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border, some with Talfor’s credit and plate number in the negative, and each with his credit again, the series title, and a plate number (I-CVII and A-F) on mount recto.

Only three extant copies are known to exist, with one in the Louisiana State University Libraries (which also, apparently, houses Talfor’s “photographic outfit” and correspondence associated with the Talfor family) and the other at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

An extraordinary photographic record by the British-born Robert B. Talfor, who founded a photography studio in Greenport, New York in 1867. The pictures, which were shot in April and May 1873, are remarkable for both their historical narrative and aesthetic integrity. The photographs depict crews improving waterway navigation. But while these labourers were removing organic matter from the Red River to facilitate riverboat transport, the railroad industry was dominating the commercial landscape, dynamically shrinking geographic distances and improving transportation of goods.

Talfor’s career as a photographer apparently began during the Civil War, when he was a topographic engineer responsible for mapping battlefields. The transition to the Louisiana project is unclear but his prints capture the haunting beauty of the landscape and the pride of labourers.

Text from the Swann Auction Galleries website [Online] Cited 19 September 2018

 

 

Cover the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Cover the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor. U.S. Steamer Aid at work, Raft No. 5, bow view. Plate A of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
U.S. Steamer Aid at work, Raft No. 5, bow view. Plate A of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. The snagboat 'U.S. Aid'. Plate C of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
The snagboat U.S. Aid. Plate C of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CI of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate CI of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate CII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate CVII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate CVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Plate CVII: Steamer Bryerly entering Red River through Sale & Murphy’s Canal

 

 

On May 16, 1873, R.B. Talfor photographed the R.T. Bryarly as she passed trough the channel opened by Lt. Eugene Woodruff’s crew. The R.T. Bryarly, on that day, became the first steamboat to enter the upper reaches of the Red River unhindered by the Great Raft at any point. For the next several months, until April 1874, the Corps of Engineers continued to work to ensure that the Raft would not re-form. The passage up the river by the the R.T. Bryarly, however, signalled that the work begun by Captain Shreve in 1833 had been successfully completed. The R.T. Bryarly sank at Pecan Point on the Red River on September 19, 1876. (Text from the book Red River Steamboats by Eric J. Brock, Gary Joiner. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999, p. 22 [Online] Cited 17/09/2018)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate D of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate D of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. 'I.N. Kalbaugh' on the Red River. Plate E of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
I.N. Kalbaugh on the Red River. Plate D of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. 'I.N. Kalhaugh' on the Red River. Plate E of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Plate D: I.N. Kalbaugh on the Red River. Steamer Kalbaugh between Raft Nos. 47 and 48.

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate LIV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate LIV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate LXXXVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate LXXXVII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Driftwood log jams obstructing the river in Louisiana before their elimination with the aid of nitroglycerine.

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate LXXXVIII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate LXXXVIII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Foot of Raft No. 2. Plate VII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate VII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Foot of Raft No. 2. One of the several shore work parties that were under the direction of the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers.

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XCVL of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XCVL of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XLV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XLV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XLV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Plate XIV

 

Robert B. Talfor. 'U.S. Aid', clearing logjam in the Red River, Louisiana. Plate XV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
U.S. Aid, clearing logjam in the Red River, Louisiana. Plate XV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

U.S. Steamer Aid at work. Raft No. 5, side view. Photograph showing the steam snag boat, US Aid, clearing logjam in the Red River, Louisiana

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XXIII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXIII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

 

Preparation for the work began in August, 1872. On November 25, “the small-pox infection being no longer feared,” the steamboat Aid, with two months provisions and two craneboats in tow, started up Red River. They had been outfitted and supplied in New Orleans. Shore parties had already been organized in Shreveport and work itself begun on December 1, a month before the arrival of the Aid. The details of this work, from the preparation in August to the opening of the upper river in May of the next year, are covered in the report dated July 1, 1873, from Lieutenant Woodruff to Captain Howell. The last page of this report included specific comments on the value of the previously discussed Photographic Views of Red River to Lieutenant Woodruff’s total report. The importance of these photographs in understand in the scope and nature of the raft removal is reflected in the following statement:

To accompany this I have prepared a series of photographic views showing every portion of the raft, parties at work, (etc). With the view is a photographic map of the raft region, with location and axis of the camera for each view marked upon it and numbered to correspond with the number on the view. This album full of photographs, affording a complete and truthful panorama of the raft, will give a better idea of the nature of the work performed and of the character of the country than could be obtained form the most elaborate description. [The map is in the Library of Congress]

.
Extract from Hubert Humphreys. “Photographic Views of the Red River Raft, 1873,” in Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring, 1971) pp. 101-108 (16 pages with photographs)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Steam saws on flat, foot Raft No. 23. Plate L of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Steam saws on flat, foot Raft No. 23. Plate L of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate VI of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate VI of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor. Raft No. 4 partially removed. Plate X of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Raft No. 4 partially removed. Plate X of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Raft No. 4 partially removed. Crane boat at work [removing dead tree]

 

Robert B. Talfor. Plate XVII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XVII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Crane boat at work

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXV of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXV of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXVI of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXVI of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

Robert B. Talfor Plate XXVIII of the photographic album 'Photographic Views of Red River Raft' 1873

 

Robert B. Talfor
Plate XXVIII of the photographic album Photographic Views of Red River Raft
1873
Hand-coloured albumen print, mounted recto only to pages with a stylised U.S. Corps of Engineers printed border
7 x 9¼ inches (17.8 x 23.5 cm)

 

 

Red River of the South

Red River map

 

Snagboat 'Helliopolis'

 

Schell and Hogan (illustration)
U.S. Snagboat ‘Helliopolis’
Nd
Engraving

 

 

The Heliopolis raised a one hundred and sixty foot tree in 1829, according to Captain Richard Delafield of the Corps of Engineers. By 1830 Shreve’s Snag Boats, or “Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers” as they were called, had improved navigation to the point that only one flatboat was lost on a snag during that year. During the 1830s Shreve set about cutting back trees on the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to prevent the recurrence of snags.

 

Harpers Weekly Cover snagboat 2 Nov 1889

 

 

“One of Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers”

The snag boats operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were sometimes called “Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers,” referring to how the vessels extracted whole trees and logs that hindered navigation. U.S. Snag Boat No. 2 is shown pulling stumps from the river bottom.

From Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 2, 1889

 

Plan for Henry Shreve's snag boat. Patent No. 913, September 12, 1838

 

Plan for Henry Shreve’s snag boat. Patent No. 913, September 12, 1838

 

 

Shreveport, the Great Raft and Eugene Augustus Woodruff

Shreveport is located on the Red River in northwestern Louisiana, positioned on the first sustainable high ground in the river valley north of the old French settlement of Natchitoches. When the town as incorporated in 1839, it was, for a short period, the westernmost municipality in the United States. Four years prior to this, the settlement began as Shreve Town. Hugging a one-square-mile diamond-shaped bluff and plateau, Shreveport seemed an ideal place for a town. The northern edge of the plateau rested against Cross Bayou. The combined water frontage of the bayou and the Red River afforded the town ample room for commercial growth. However, a major obstacle stood in its way.

Captain Henry Miller Shreve, the man for whom Shreveport is named, received a contract from the U.S. Army to remove a gain logjam known as the “Great Raft.” Shrove was widely acclaimed as the most knowledgeable expert in raft removal… The upstream portion of the raft at times extended in Oklahoma. Since the Red River had many meandering curves, a straight-line mile might have as many as 3 river miles within it. At its largest, the raft closed over 400 miles of river. By the time Shreve examined it, in about 1830, the raft extended about 110 miles.

Shrove bought in large vessels that he modified for the job. Some of these ripped the jam apart with grappling hooks. Others rammed the raft to loosen individual trees. Some of the vessels were built by taking two steamboats and joining them side by side into a catamaran. The captain built a small sawmill on the common deck. The most famous of these hybrid snag boats, as they were called, were the Archimedes and the Heliopolis. His crews consisted of slave labor and Irish immigrants. The work was very difficult and extremely dangerous. …

Shreve’s efforts did not end the problem with the raft. Periodic work was needed to clear the river as the raft formed again. The Civil War interrupted this work, but by 1870, Congress had realised that the rived must be opened. Appropriations were again made, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent an engineering unit to deal with the issue. The team arrived in late 1871 under the command of First Lieutenant Eugene Augustus Woodruff. Woodruff, his brother, George, and their men set to work. They recorded their actions with maps and photographs. R.B. Talfor was the photographer assigned the duty of recording the work, and this may have been the first instance of an imbedded photographer assigned to a specific unit. Talfor and the Woodruff brothers took over one hundred images of the raft clearing. Today, their records remain the standard chronicle for a project of this type.

The unit’s primary snagboat was the U.S. Aid, a modern version of Henry Shreve’s Archimedes. This elegant stern-wheel vessel was the most advanced of its type in the late nineteenth century. Another technology used as a test bed for river clearing was the newly created explosive nitroglycerin. Because nitroglycerin was extremely dangerous to use and volatile to make, the nitroglycerin lab occasionally blew up – thankfully, with almost no casualties.

The Woodruffs found areas of clear water, appearing as a strong of lakes, and when the broke up the logs around them, the loosened trees and logs would sometimes form snags downstream. One of the unfortunate steamboats was the R.T. Bryarly, photographed by Talfor in 1873. Talker took his photograph from a recently cleared section of the rived. Piles of debris could clearly be seen on both banks as the steam picked its was up the river. The Bryarly plied the rived until September 19, 1876, when it hit a snag and was lost. The use of explosives and the improved snagboats finally conquered the river. …

… In mid-August 1873, an epidemic [of yellow fever] broke out it Shreveport. Everyone who could leave town did, and the population dwindled to about four thousand people before other towns sealed of the roads, railroads and streams to protect their residents. A quarter of the population who remained died within the first two weeks, and another 50 percent contracted yellow fever within the next six weeks. Most of the doctors and nurses died in the first month. …

In early September 1873, the army ordered its raft-clearing engineers out of the city, indicating that they should relocate farther south. Lieutenant Eugene Augustus Woodruff set his men, including his brother, George, to safety. He remained to help care for the residents of Shreveport. With most of the doctors dead or ill, Woodruff and six Roman Catholic priest ministered to the victims. By the end of September, all of these good men had died from yellow fever.

Gary D. Joiner and Ernie Roberson. Lost Shreveport: Vanishing Scenes from the Red River Valley. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010 [Online] Cited 17/10/2018

 

 

Unknown photographer. 'Lt. Eugene Woodruff' (age approx. 23) c. 1866

 

Unknown photographer
Lt. Eugene Woodruff (age approx. 23)
c. 1866
USMA Archives

 

 

Lt. Eugene A. Woodruff (1843-1873), Red River Hero, died age 31

“He died because too brave to abandon his post even in the face of a fearful pestilence and too humane to let his fellow beings perish without giving all the aid in his power to save them,” wrote Capt. Charles W. Howell, responsible for Corps of Engineers works in Louisiana, in 1873. “His name should be cherished, not only by his many personal friends,” he continued, “but by the Army, as one who lived purely, labored faithfully, and died in the path of duty.”

Captain Howell penned that tribute to his deputy, Lt. Eugene A. Woodruff, a young officer whom Howell sent from New Orleans to the Red River of Louisiana as supervisor of the project to clear the great log raft, a formidable obstruction to navigation. Henry M. Shreve first cleared the Red River raft in the 1830s, but the raft formed again during years of inadequate channel maintenance resulting from meager congressional appropriations and neglect during the Civil War.

Lieutenant Woodruff left his workboats and crew on the Red River in September 1873 to visit Shreveport and recruit a survey party. When he arrived, he found Shreveport in the grip of a yellow-fever epidemic. Fearing he might carry the disease to his workmen if he returned to camp, he elected to stay in Shreveport and tend to the sick. He volunteered his services to the Howard Association, a Louisiana disaster-relief charity, and traveled from house to house in his carriage, delivering food, medicine, and good cheer to the sick and dying. He contracted the disease himself and died in late September, “a martyr,” reported the Shreveport newspaper, “to the blessed cause of charity.”

“His conduct of the great work on which he was engaged at the time of his death,” said the New Orleans District Engineer, “will be a model for all similar undertakings and the completion of the work a monument to his memory.” Captain Howell assigned responsibility for finishing the job on the Red River to Assistant Engineer George Woodruff, brother of the lieutenant.

Woodruff’s selfless actions not only eased the suffering of Shreveport residents, but his decision to remain in the town no doubt lessened the threat to his crew. Spared from the disease, the engineers successfully broke through the raft, clearing the river for navigation on 27 November 1873. An Ohio River snagboat built the following year received the name E. A. Woodruff in recognition of the lieutenant’s sacrifice. The vessel served until 1925. More than a century later the people of Shreveport continue to honor the memory of Lieutenant Woodruff.

Text and image from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website

 

Unknown photographer. 'Untitled [Members of a Cavalry unit at Fort Grant, A.T. in 1876 showing the variety of both clothing and headgear in use by the Army in the mid-1870s]' 1876

 

Unknown photographer
Untitled [Members of a Cavalry unit at Fort Grant, A.T. in 1876 showing the variety of both clothing and headgear in use by the Army in the mid-1870s]
1876

 

 

Yellow fever

Yellow fever is a viral disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes. Yellow fever can lead to serious illness and even death. It is called ‘yellow fever’ because in serious cases, the skin turns yellow in colour. This is known as ‘jaundice’. Symptoms of yellow fever may take 3 to 6 days to appear. Some infections can be mild but most lead to serious illness characterised by two stages. In the first stage fever, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, headache and weakness occur. About 15 to 25 per cent of those with yellow fever progress to the second stage also known as the ‘toxic’ stage, of which half die within 10 to 14 days after onset of illness. Visible bleeding, jaundice, kidney and liver failure can occur during the second stage.

Although yellow fever is most prevalent in tropical-like climates, the northern United States were not exempted from the fever. The first outbreak in English-speaking North America occurred in New York City in 1668, and a serious one afflicted Philadelphia in 1793. English colonists in Philadelphia and the French in the Mississippi River Valley recorded major outbreaks in 1669, as well as those occurring later in the 18th and 19th centuries. The southern city of New Orleans was plagued with major epidemics during the 19th century, most notably in 1833 and 1853. Its residents called the disease “yellow jack”…

The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia, which was then the capital of the United States, resulted in the deaths of several thousand people, more than 9% of the population. The national government fled the city, including President George Washington. Additional yellow fever epidemics struck Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries, and traveled along steamboat routes from New Orleans. They caused some 100,000-150,000 deaths in total.

In 1853, Cloutierville, Louisiana, had a late-summer outbreak of yellow fever that quickly killed 68 of the 91 inhabitants. A local doctor concluded that some unspecified infectious agent had arrived in a package from New Orleans. 650 residents of Savannah, Georgia died from yellow fever in 1854. In 1858, St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina, suffered 308 yellow fever deaths, reducing the congregation by half. A ship carrying persons infected with the virus arrived in Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia in June 1855. The disease spread quickly through the community, eventually killing over 3,000 people, mostly residents of Norfolk and Portsmouth. In 1873, Shreveport, Louisiana, lost almost a quarter of its population to yellow fever. In 1878, about 20,000 people died in a widespread epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley. That year, Memphis had an unusually large amount of rain, which led to an increase in the mosquito population. The result was a huge epidemic of yellow fever. The steamship John D. Porter took people fleeing Memphis northward in hopes of escaping the disease, but passengers were not allowed to disembark due to concerns of spreading yellow fever. The ship roamed the Mississippi River for the next two months before unloading her passengers. The last major U.S. outbreak was in 1905 in New Orleans.

Text from the Wikipedia website

 

Snag

In forest ecology, a snag refers to a standing, dead or dying tree, often missing a top or most of the smaller branches. In freshwater ecology it refers to trees, branches, and other pieces of naturally occurring wood found sunken in rivers and streams; it is also known as coarse woody debris. …

Maritime hazard

Also known as deadheads, partially submerged snags posed hazards to early riverboat navigation and commerce. If hit, snags punctured the wooden hulls used in the 19th century and early 20th century. Snags were, in fact, the most commonly encountered hazard, especially in the early years of steamboat travel. In the United States, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operated “snagboats” such as the W. T. Preston in the Puget Sound of Washington State and the Montgomery in the rivers of Alabama to pull out and clear snags. Starting in 1824, there were successful efforts to remove snags from the Mississippi and its tributaries. By 1835, a lieutenant reported to the Chief of Engineers that steamboat travel had become much safer, but by the mid-1840s the appropriations for snag removal dried up and snags re-accumulated until after the Civil War.

Text from the Wikipedia webiste

 

S.T. Blessing. 'New Orleans Levee' c. 1866-1870

 

S.T. Blessing
New Orleans Levee
c. 1866-1870
From a stereographic view, on wet or dry plate glass negative

 

 

Samuel Tobias Blessing (1830-1897) was a successful daguerreotypist, ambrotypist, photographer, daguerrean, and photographic stock dealer. He was active in La Grange, Texas in 1856, and Galveston, Texas 1856 c.-1861, and in New Orleans 1861-1890s. From 1856, Blessing partnered with Samuel Anderson, operating bi-state studios and stock depots in Trenton Street, Galverston, and at 120 Canal Street, New Orleans, moving to 137 Canal Street in 1856. Their partnership was dissolved in 1863. After the Civil War, Blessing turned his attention to making stereographs, publishing New Orleans in Stereoscope in 1866. Other stereographic series included Views of New Orleans & Vicinity, and Public Buildings in New Orleans.

Text and image from the Steamboat Times website

 

Unknown photographer. 'New Orleans Levee' c. 1867-1868

 

Unknown photographer
New Orleans Levee
c. 1867-1868
Wet plate negative on glass, or Tintype positive

 

 

Four boats in this New Orleans scene have been positively identified. They are from right to left, B.L. HODGE (No.2), MONSOON, ST. NICHOLAS, and CUBA. The remaining boats, also right to left, are not confirmed but may be the BART ABLE, GEORGE D. PALMER, and the FLICKER.

The B.L. HODGE No.2 was built in 1867, and the MONSOON was lost to a snag on the Red River on Dec. 21, 1868, heavily loaded with cotton. Therefore the photograph was taken sometime during 1867-1868. The PALMER was lost after hitting the Quincy bridge on Oct. 2, 1868, which would further narrow the timeframe for this scene.

Text and image from the Steamboat Times website

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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