John S. Weber
Dayton Director, 2004–2012
Tang Teaching Museum
Using four similar postcards showing a fabled beach in Cyprus,(1) depicted both with and without a female model in a bathing suit, Schmid assembled the first panel of Archiv [Archive] in 1986, when he was still active primarily as a publisher and critic. He concluded work on the series in 1999, seven hundred and twenty-five panels later. The individual panels contain anywhere from two to sixty images and the entire series encompasses literally thousands of pictures, sorted by Schmid into idiosyncratic but revealing categories and image genres. It is at once a history, a commentary, and a celebration of the mundane weirdness of commonplace photography. Like Bilder von Der Straße, Archiv seems to take seriously the ironic motto the artist coined at the time of photography’s 150th anniversary in 1989: “No new photos until the old ones are used up.” And like Bilder von Der Straße, it lavishes attention on precisely the kinds of photos that museums and histories long ignored.(2)
Schmid considers Archiv “a survey of photography in the twentieth century with some fields missing, like art photography, fashion, and journalism—everything that somebody else cares for.”(3) Its source material encompasses both vernacular snapshot photography from anonymous sources and examples of the lowest grade of commercial photography. Using a standard 40 x 50cm matt board as the basic frame, Archiv sorts photography into a series of concise, carefully composed, freeze-frame typologies. Schmid has said that he sees each panel as representing a “species” of photograph—an idea taken from natural history collections rather than from art history. In the same breath he observes ironically that since there are no clear species in photography, “I do have the opportunity to prove that elephants are directly related to mosquitos.”
Humour aside, Schmid’s taxonomy is anything but arbitrary. His canny image groups are constructed with a careful modulation of form and content that balances the psychological as well as the purely visual on the page. Rarely does too much information overwhelm the theme. And rarely, if ever, does it take longer than a flash to see and accept what Schmid is proposing.
Looking at the range of panels in Archiv, what becomes clear is the simultaneous eccentricity and validity of Schmid’s curious historical taxonomy. Many of the image groupings are immediately recognisable: people with dogs; team pictures; wedding couples with flowers; postcard views of motels; sports celebrity headsets; the new car; dinner with the family; and so on. Other “species” Schmid identifies are unanticipated in their photographic specificity, yet equally recognisable as typologies we have seen before without registering them: women and children with horses and ponies; people with TV sets; airplanes photographed from airport windows; elephants in the zoo; people in rowboats, non-descript urban plazas. Such pictures are endemic to snapshot photography, the dimestore postcard rack, and the vacation albums of the industrialized, capitalist world. However, their use remains fundamentally private in nature, and therefore hidden. To have seen such photos means, typically, to have come across them in one’s own family. Yet it is one thing to see a picture of girls and horses in your grandparents’ photo album, and a different matter entirely to find essentially the same image reproduced by others. It reveals a commonality of human photographic instinct that is poignant, unexpected, and ultimately somewhat unsettling.
In the visual record provided by Archiv, specific and private individual experiences aggregate as shared photographic habits. The resulting taxonomy first spotlights and then refutes any attempt to use photography to capture “unique” experiences and enthusiasms, and thereby craft personal history and identity. Archiv teaches us that if you can do it with a camera, someone else is already doing it, too, and has been for decades. This lesson is perhaps most evident in the snapshot panels of Archiv, but it is fundamental as well to the panels displaying commercial photographs.
Even as it deconstructs the ideology of “the Kodak moment,” Archiv offers a fascinating portrait of everyday pastimes and common desires. Its psychological range encompasses the breadth of human experience, including satire, irony, and a sense of the absurd. Filled with sentiment and cliché, Archiv itself remains unsentimental, observing its subjects from a vantage point well above the photographic fray, analysing, organising, and occasionally snickering with olympian delight.