by Vince Aletti
German photography has had an enormous impact in America in the past two decades, but the success of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Ruff has eluded Michael Schmidt, who is having his first solo show in a New York gallery, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, at the age of sixty-two. While Schmidt has had his champions here (MOMA exhibited important bodies of work in 1988 and 1996), his pictures are tough and decidedly unspectacular—not exactly catnip for collectors. The photographs in his current exhibition, made between 1965 and 2004, are all modest in size and black-and-white, and were taken in Berlin. The city and its citizens have been Schmidt’s subject since the beginning, and he documents them with the kind of passionate, despairing objectivity that makes Struth’s work look decorative by comparison. History screams from postwar office blocks and drains the light from every landscape, yet Schmidt is relentless. His Berlin is a wasteland with a past that no amount of concrete can conceal
Erykah Badu transforms the flotsam and jetsam of hip-hop.
On a Monday evening in August of 1996, I went to see the Roots perform at the Knitting Factory, in downtown Manhattan. The band had come from Philadelphia for a three-night stand in support of their “illadelph halflife” album. At one point during the set, I noticed a tall woman with an enormous head wrap standing in the front row of the crowd. Toward the end of the evening, the group’s bassist, Leonard (Hub) Hubbard, gestured for the woman to come onstage. The lead rapper, Tariq (Black Thought) Trotter, announced, “This is a friend of ours from Dallas, Texas. Her name is Erykah Badu.”
“I was skeptical about her jumping onstage,” the band’s leader, Ahmir (?uestlove) Thompson, told me by telephone last week. “We kinda looked at singers as soft, and we thought that most singers looked down on hip-hop the same way that actors looked down on rappers-cum-actors.” Badu was different, though. “Most singers need to pick the key and tell you how the song goes,” ?uestlove said. “She didn’t need anything. She was quick.” Dressed in long, draping clothes that she had made herself, and wearing what ?uestlove described as “the highest platform shoes I’d ever seen in my life,” Badu looked like a queen. She was rail thin, with a wide face and terrifyingly subtle and balanced facial geometry. Imagine the good monarch from a desert planet, the one you’d consult for wisdom just as your universe-saving mission started falling apart.