Marian Schmidt was a photographer associated with humanist reportage photography. He took the majority of his photographs between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s, when he became interested in a more abstract form of still life, which he defined as ‘photopainting’. He attached great importance to theories of photography and the phenomenology of the creative process. He held a PhD in mathematics. He passed away on 7th March 2018.
He was born in Żyrardów in 1945 but his parents decided to emigrate. They first went to France in 1946 but after a short while moved to Caracas in Venezuela, where Schmidt took his first photographs as a twelve year-old boy with a Konica camera given to him by his father. After passing the baccalaureate he found his way to the United States. When asked by Marek Grygiel, Schmidt explained:
My father sent me to Berkeley at the University of California to study engineering. It was a hard time for me as I didn't know English. Anyway, I didn't like engineering and I wanted to go to film school in Los Angeles, but my father didn't want to finance this idea hence I decided to study mathematics.
Schmidt defended his PhD in mathematics at Brandeis University and lectured there till the second half of the 1970s. The academic job was an outcome of the fact that he was not able to subsist on photography alone. The year 1973 was a turning point in his artistic life – two of his pictures were selected by Andre Kertesz for the yearly American Society of Magazine Photographers exhibition. These two pictures were: Śpiąca Kobieta (editor’s translation: A Sleeping Woman) and Trzej Więźniowie (editor’s translation: Three Inmates), both taken in Mexico.
He returned to Poland in 1974 and in the next year received a job offer as second director in the Kadr crew. Schmidt worked with Jerzy Kawalerowicz on Death of a President (1977), shot advertising photographs for Pollena, created covers for Zwierciadło, and wrote numerous reportages for itd. In 1978 Schmidt left Poland and moved to New York, where he managed to get a job in the prestigious Black Star agency, whose future members would be photographers like Robert Capa, William Eugene Smith, Martin Munkácsi, Bill Brandt, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The photographer looks back on the time:
I was given an extraordinary job to take photographs in Saudi Arabia. In Rihjad, I was on the one hand shooting a documentary film for the university, while on the other taking photographs of American industrial companies in the Persian Gulf region.
Schmidt tried to take reportage photographs on the streets of Arabic cities but the local populace was reluctant to it (images of people and animals are against the orthodox Islam practised on the Arabian Peninsula). From a commercial point of view, it was the ‘photographer’s dream’ though. Thanks to the money raised on photographs taken in Saudi Arabia, he could settle with his wife in Paris, where he lived between 1980 and the second half of the 1990s.
In France he got involved with the Rapho agency which was (like Black Star in the United States), exemplary of the best press photography. While working there, he met some of the most important figures of the humanistic line of reportage photography: Robert Doisneau, Edouardo Boubata, and Willy Ronis. Schmidt recollects:
There was a custom that somewhere between 4 and 5pm photographers gathered at tea time. Doisneau was the most frequent visitor […]. He enjoyed joking. He was, if one can say that, an anti-intellectualist. He did not like to philosophise, but loved daily, routine matters. I think there's something that connects the Poles and the French mentally. It's the so-called ‘l’esprit’, the witty situational esprit. When something funny happens, there's always someone who comes up with a joke.
The time spent in France and the humanistic photography period were symbolically brought to an end with an exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary History in Paris in 1994, where around one hundred photographs by the artist were shown. An introduction to the album accompanying the exhibition was written by Edouard Boubat.
Schmidt began to gradually move away from reportage photography in the humanistic convention in favour of a more abstract, large-format still life that referred to the American classic Minor White. From a technical point of view, it meant a change of a small format camera (35mm, Leica) to a large format camera (Linhof 4x5"). The new chapter in Schmidt’s artistic life, which he referred to as ‘photopainting’, was characteristically described by the artist in 1995 to Marek Grygiel:
Photographers always complain about the lack of choice when it comes to colours. Colours are given by the nature and the type of film we use. The difference between various types of film is indeed very small. Films truly qualify colours in one way or another but more than anything else it's a matter of what we really see. For instance, I see a part of the nature, cover it with a very thin layer of paint (so I can still see the matter) and photograph it only later when the light is just as I want it to be. I do not model what I see, I only model the colour. Before I started doing it, I studied painting for two years.
Schmidt paid a lot of attention to reflection on the act of creation. In his theoretic contemplations, Schmidt quoted Roman Ingarden’s texts and the Romanian composer and conductor Sergiu Calibidache’s studies. Schmidt attended the latter’s classes on the phenomenology of music in Paris in the 1980s.
Compared with a musician, a photographer plays a dual role – both a composer and a performer by exposing or imagining visual elements in a frame and arranging them in a particular way. It seemingly looks like the composer’s job but an assessment of motives and a proper set of elements are closer to the work of a performer.
Schmidt was the author of Hommes de Science (1990), Marian Schmidt (1994) and Niecodzienne Rozmowy z ks. Janem Twardowskim (editor’s translation: Unusual Conversations with Jan Twardowski) (2000). Already as a cofounder, lecturer and the director of the Warsaw School of Photography, Schmidt obtained a PhD in the department of artistic photography at the Film School in Łódż in 2002. He passed away on 7th March 2018.
Author: Krzysztof Miękus, translated by Antoni Wiśniewski
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