“I am an artist because there is no other description for what I do.”
These are the surprisingly telling words of Joachim Schmid, a Berlin-based artist who has spent more than 30 years of his career working with found photographs. The majority of his projects have involved gathering and re-presenting photographs—both print and digital—taken by the anonymous public. Oftentimes intentionally discarded by their creators, Schmid’s source materials would, but for him, disappear into the physical or virtual trash heap. Instead, Schmid’s “anti-museum” of forgotten, lost, and disused photographs, challenges us to reconsider not only our assumptions of photographic worth, but also how photography and collecting function as cultural practices.
The former photo critic-turned-artist describes his work as alternately curatorial and editorial, and it is oftentimes difficult to discern where editorial selection ends and creative representation begins. But in truth, his artistic approach is evident from the inception of his projects, which grow from a process that is as creative as his outcomes.
By gathering the world’s photographic rejects and mounting them on gallery walls, Schmid’s work asks us to reconsider the so-called photographic canon, which depends on weighty notions of history, authenticity, and authorship. Instead, one of his earliest and longest-running projects, Pictures from the Street (1982-2012), consists of authorless photographs and remnants encountered by chance and gathered over 30 years of wandering city streets. The reference here to the tradition of street photography is intentional, but instead of selecting his moments from behind a lens, he picks them up off the street. Discarded, lost, or torn, these photographs are compelling because of the mystery behind them. Even under torture, Schmid quips, he would be unable to recount their stories (which, incidentally, puts him on par with his audience, a fact that he relishes). He is compelled instead by a photograph’s worn folds, as if lovingly carried in a wallet; or another’s violent tears, signaling perhaps a tumultuous end to an emotional relationship. These traces of human action are, for Schmid, the most revealing, and reflect the role that photography plays in everyday life.
While Schmid picked up every remnant in his path for Pictures from the Street, Archiv (1986-1999) was thoughtfully curated. This project consists of mounted panels of carefully selected anonymous snapshots and commercial photographs, sorted by type and aesthetic approach in a visual taxonomy of the mundane. In Other People’s Photographs (2008-2011), Schmid delved into the digital realm of discarded and found photography on sites such as Flickr and produced a series of 96 print-on-demand books that similarly sought to define patterns of more recent online photographic production and consumption.
In Erste allgemeine Altfotosammlung, or First General Collection of Used Photographs (1990), Schmid turned the process of finding photographs on its head, founding an Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs—promising to recycle and reuse any unwanted photographs that were sent to his address. He received an overwhelming number of photographic rejects, which have contributed to projects such as Photogenetic Drafts (1991), in which Schmid recombined vertically sliced photographs sent to him by a portrait studio into hybrid collages that are quirky and humorous, but also vaguely disturbing.
Schmid’s concept of an “anti-museum,” a phrase that the artist himself once used to describe his collection of unwanted and discarded photographic objects, is perhaps most compellingly presented in his Photographic Garbage Survey Project (1996-97). Over two years, Schmid systematically walked prearranged routes through seven cities, collecting, preserving, and documenting every piece of photographic garbage in his path. In Paris, he gathered 91 objects over 9 days. And while in São Paulo, he gathered 83 objects in 8 days. Other cities included Berlin (43 objects, 6 days); Rotterdam (28 objects, 4 days); San Francisco (28 objects, 6 days); Vigo, Spain (23 objects, 5 days); and Zürich (12 objects, 4 days).
Unlike Pictures from the Street, in this project Schmid mapped each day’s route in advance and then walked it precisely, noting details of each found photograph such as location, date, and position in the sequence of the day’s discoveries. It was in effect an intentional search for photographic garbage, an urban archaeology circumscribed by the conditions of a specific place and time. It was documented via maps drawn in red marker on black-and-white ground (one for each day) and various statistical analyses, which would be exhibited next to the found objects themselves, each one carefully mounted on its own A4-sized sheet. As part of his process, Schmid analyzed the finds in each city. Rotterdam, for example, had the most intact photos (68%), whereas Vigo the most ripped up (83%). Zürich had the most photobooth pictures (50%), San Francisco had the most Polaroids (25%), and Paris the most ID photos (36%).
In response to this analysis, Schmid writes “So what does this tell us? People in Vigo care about privacy and destroy their photos before dumping them whereas people in Rotterdam don't? People in Paris have and/or dispose of more ID photos than people in other cities? Inhabitants of San Francisco use more Polaroid cameras than people in other cities? Maybe. Maybe not.” In his quietly tongue-in-cheek style, Schmid shows us that Photographic Garbage Survey Project was never about a scientific or comparative survey of cities, but was rather an attempt to understand the flip side of photographic collection and preservation, and a need to document something specific in a world of limitless garbage, produced daily and on a global basis—both digitally and in print.
In a manifesto that Schmid co-authored for the exhibition From Here On, which he curated with four others at Les Recontres d’Arles in 2011, the opening lines state: “Now, we’re a species of editors. We all recycle, clip and cut, remix and upload. We can make images do anything. All we need is an eye, a brain, a camera, a phone, a laptop, a scanner, a point of view. And when we’re not editing, we’re making. We’re making more than ever, because our resources are limitless and the possibilities endless.” As his projects show, Schmid is simultaneously editing and making, revealing the many layers of creative action in his artistic process. Through his mixing and recombination, we are forcibly reminded of how plastic today’s world of image production, circulation, and consumption can be.