“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll
My first experience with Ralf Schmerberg’s work was his photographic book Dirty Dishes – page after page of dishes in disarray. My initial read was neutral, but then I looked past the repetition, and began to witness the layers of times and places: the experiences built into the imagery. These dishes were all over the world, their smears and crumbs and sauces were the accumulative detritus of dozens of culinary cultures. The dishes function as documents of this man’s travels. Once delicious, now vulgar consumables-on-porcelain. Suddenly the banal becomes strange.
The dishes were a potent entry point. From there Schmerberg’s mind began to open up to me. He is an obsessive cataloguer of categories – of people, of views from windows, of flowers, of fingernails, of feathers, of shrines, of colors, of clouds. And in cataloguing, the viewer is confronted with all of the difference and dissonance of imposed order. Categories begin to break down and recombine with the sensibility of a poem: the scraggly light of a firework will echo the edge of a fur in a window display, or a splatter of sauce on a plate. Faces become masks, beggars become icons.
Schmerberg’s viewpoint is highly personal. Through his work he is creating a diary, a journal, a poem of his life, work and travels. For me the work is most closely aligned to Robert Frank’s The Americans, notable for its distanced view both high and low. Like Frank, Schmerberg is intensely engaged with the reality of the surface of the world.
I like that I feel uncomfortable at times, that not everything is beautiful or refined. There is certainly a dose of the sublime, a touch of transcendence, but there is also a counterweight of stark reality, undressed, discreetly observed, both secret and messy. We are faced with truths that are poignant in their honesty – a girl in India whose legs are bowing under the weight of the metal pipe she is holding. This kind of reality sneaks up on you and slaps you across the face. Suddenly you are not neutral. You are looking at the world as an artist looks at the world.
This degree of discomfort, of the confrontational aspect of photography (also reminiscent of Frank), creates an emotional investment with the work. Imagery becomes drama. Each piece tells a story, functioning as stills in a movie the artist has shot. It’s probably no surprise that in addition to being a photographer, Schmerberg has a long history as a filmmaker.
Much like the Neo-realists of Italian cinema, Schmerberg often substitutes our desire for the ideal with the hard facts and truths of reality. It’s not a beautiful woman seated in front of paintings at the museum, but rather a biker in a leather vest with the word “Germany” just below his long hair. Then there is the maid, struggling on the carpet under a Renaissance sfumato, unaware of how she matches the two yellow chairs beside her. And the veiled woman, passing by an erotically charged nude. People and paintings: another ingenuous category.
The longer one considers these images, the more questions they pose. Could this biker be a connoisseur? What does he think of this landscape he is leaning into? Could it be an image he has revisited for years? And the yellow uniformed maid: what has she found there on the cream carpet? Will she ever sit in one of the yellow chairs? And where is the veiled woman headed? Has she noticed the long cracks in the wall? This is the poetic mystery at the heart of the work.
Schmerberg has developed a form that is open-ended, even deliberately ambiguous – one that engages viewers, rewarding their prolonged consideration, and perhaps leaving them with as many questions as answers.