Michael Schmidt has won the 2014 Prix Pictet for his series, Lebensmittel, an epic exploration of the global food industry. The theme of this year’s prize, which focuses on photography and sustainability, is Consumption. German-born Schmidt beat a strong shortlist that included Adam Bartos, Rineke Dijkstra, Boris Mikhailov and Laurie Simmons.
Lebensmittel, which roughly translates as “foodstuff”, took seven years to complete, with Schmidt travelling the globe to photograph factory farms, industrial slaughterhouses and supermarkets as well as single items like a mango wrapped in plastic. He also captured more formal studies: a stooping farmer, vacuum-packed mince and glistening fish heads. The book that accompanied the exhibition is a heavyweight tome, but is, compared to some of Schmidt’s other undertakings, relatively modest.
Born in Berlin in 1945, Schmidt once described himself as a “blind-alley photographer”, likening his approach to walking into a cul-de-sac and having to find a way back out. He has also said that “failure or making mistakes is an integral part of my way of working.” Perhaps for this reason, his work can seem forbidding, both in its epic ambition and in its fiercely formal sequencing. In what is perhaps his most well-known book, Ein-Heit, Schmidt mixed contemporary urban landscapes and portraits from Germany with historical images from the National Socialist period. The mood, like the colours, is unrelentingly grey, but the book has an understated power.
With Lebensmittel, Schmidt once again skirts the borders of documentary, but he is too much of a singular stylist to be confined by its borders. The style is too subjective for a straightforward critique of the global industrialisation of food production. Instead, the eye is drawn to sequences that hint at mini-narratives or repeated images. He uses grids of photographs, and looking closely you can pick out repeated shapes: curves, angles, squares and circles. If there is a guiding narrative to his work, it is governed as much by his own formal curiosity – and perhaps his ongoing investigation of the limits of photography – as by political or social concerns.
The food industry that emerges form Lebensmittel is as mysterious as it is ruthlessly efficient, as intriguing as it is exploitative. Schmidt’s images sit within these apparent incongruities, making him a notable winner of a photography prize that parades its ecological credentials. Prix Pictet is, not to mention, bankrolled by a Geneva private bank and its judges and advisory board, as the Guardian’s John Vidal pointed out, “come largely from that section of the international art and business establishment that has paid little attention so far to climate change or the great environment issues of our time”. (That group includes former PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Leo Johnson, brother of Boris, Mayor of London.) Is this global capitalism critiquing itself, or using photography to give a veneer of ecological credibility? Either way, you won’t find many artists these days truly radical enough to resist a lucrative prize, whatever the contradictions.
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