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Notes on EIN-HEIT by Michael Schmidt

Jul 13, 2003

EIN-HEIT by Michael Schmidt. Scalo, 1996. ISBN 3-931141-17-9. Can be ordered for Euro 19,- at Buchhandlung Walter König.

The book's black & white photographs show portraits, land- and city scapes, reproduced (often enlarged) historic rastered photographs, interiors (drawn 50's curtains, shots of empty desks, walls with some fittings or neon lights, doors of which images have been ripped off, sections of inscriptions on monuments, etc.

Mostly the right page is used and the left is left blank, but from time to time the last photo of a section is repeated as mirror image on the right side (sometimes it is a different photograph), giving a musical structure to the book.

People look somehow trapped in a past that merges war and post-war, a past that seems to coat images of the more recent past with a film of this strangely merged and clotted history. This is not just due to the use of black and white. While you can sometimes tell from the clothes and the haircuts that many of these photographs are quite recent (80's and 90's) they have a leaden feel to them that drags them down into the unsavoury past. By implication, the presence (once you force yourself to acknowledge the images are recent) feels equally doomed and unsavoury.

On the level of composition of the book, the link to Germany's Nazi past and its proponents, Mitläufer and victims is ever present. There are many reproductions of b&w rastered images from newspapers or other publications, often partial close-up views. Some seem to show the layout of concentration camps, heaps of clothes or dead bodies. The raster artifacts and degree of magnification makes this sometimes difficult to ascertain. This seems to play on the difficulty or unwillingness of perceiving the harrowing traces of the past, and on the difficulty of discerning its historical truth if access is mediated by a multitude of receding, disputed, overworked and reprocessed sources.

If you look at the selection of shots in EIN-HEIT, you can see a conscious elimination of certain markers that one would immediately connote with a particular time: cars, for example, hardly feature in the photographs. Neither do shops or advertisement boards that would give away the time when the photograph was taken (perhaps in a bracket of about a decade). This runs strangely counter to the symbolic marker of documentation: the use of black & white film.

In outdoors shots, there is generally a grey diffuse light, showing a preference for overcast days. The land- and cityscapes often show depressing housing estates of eastern Germany, rundown, pathetic or nondescript. Facades and other surfaces show traces of use and wear. The landscapes are flat, forlorn, as if one had been dropped in the middle of nowhere and had to devinate the route to the nearest settlement via muddy fields. Sometimes the earth surface looks as if some building had been removed or as if some inconceivable use had left its traces.

Many of the portrayed people seem cast (or cast themselves, often unconsciously) in an uneasy way. As portraits, these shots are hardly flattering, but on the other hand, they don't appear to be intended as 'revealing'. The shots have an ambiguity about them that may be due to what may be imputed as a specific social trait of their production. They avoid both the character of candids (people captured unaware) nor do they match, on the other hand, the category of the portrait that allows the portrayed to assume a self-selected pose. However, while they seem to 'sit on the fence' in terms of the social genre, only few portraits look as if they had been taken in the brief transitory moment between candid and self-conscious portrait, when the subject is becoming aware of the presence of the photographer but has not had the time to adjust to his or her own role as someone being portrayed. You begin to speculate about the relation and communication between photographer and photographed subject. In many cases, it is likely that some prior encounter has taken place that will have created a medium in which the oblique moment was rendered possible.

A few shots seem to derive their air of unease from the frozen moment, the half-closed eyelids. (Ulf Erdmann-Ziegler contends that Schmidt shows the relativity of the 'right moment' of photography.) In most cases the subjects seem aware that they are being portrayed. Many have something sleepy, sheepish, stoic or embarrassed about them; they'd rather dissipate into the background, but appear unable to do so as if some prosaic spell had been cast upon them.

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