An hour before beginning to write this essay, I was on the phone to Michael Schreier, at his home in Ottawa, asking him some eleventh hour questions. And he had a query for me: “Why do you want to write about my work?” he asked me amiably. “You want me to answer that right now?” I asked him.
My hope was that this article itself might eventually provide the answer. A quick response to Schreier’s question could have been that I see his work as the enshrining of an “intimate immensity” (the phrase is Gaston Bachelard’s, where it is used as the title of the 8th chapter of The Poetics of Space). For me, this means that Schreier’s exquisitely wrought, large-scale photographs are made to evince a sensuous but insistent embodiment of the nature of human loss, sharable memory and, to some extent, the fruits of memory’s often agonized reclamation.
A cursory look at the topos of Schreier’s photographs—observable, when he is between exhibitions, on his rich and intellectually generous blog (Camera Obscura at cameracamedia.blogspot.com) or in the huge, gorgeously made photographic books he produces from time to time (Schreier Publishing at email@example.com)— might lead one to believe that the artist somehow specialized in rather mystical interiors (often focus-less and luminously miasmic) and street portraits of a indexical but curiously wayward, context-less kind (he has referred to these works as “portraits of anonymous people”).
But the cursory look, the glancing blow, doesn’t work with Schreier. His photographs are as submerged in time as coral is in the sea, deeply imbued with time invested, time experienced and time meditated upon (Schreier spends tireless hours exploring the spaces that engage him, for example, and devotes (almost in the religious sense) long, fervid lengths of homage-time actually making his photographs (often using exposure times that are several hours long).
In Schreier’s painstaking work, symbols—which are far too cheaply acquired these days—are utterly foresworn in favour of a deeper engagement with his subject. This photographic engagement partakes simultaneously of the enigma of the historical, the bittersweet anguish of the remembered, and the hopeless joy of the resolutions inherent in the inspectably transitional. In Schreier’s quietly epic work, spaces are relics, and the photographs that portray and hold those spaces are reliquaries.
Working as what Jean-Francois Lyotard once called “an outsider inside” (The Confession of Augustine, 2000, p.7), Schreier explores his subjects with a kind of brilliant, pauseless humility and a deference to the always elusive, always marginal meaning of remnant truths salvaged from other times and places.
Sometimes, earlier in his career, these places could enshrine and offer essentially sociological truths—as in his moving photos of, for example, the Daly Building in Ottawa (opened in 1905 and demolished in 1991), to which Schreier was granted access in 1980 (Schreier told me he still vividly recalls the “dust, marks and footprints” he found there which, to some extent, continue to colour and inform his musings about the nature of loss (both cultural and personal) and abandonment.
As time moved on, Schreier followed it, redirecting his lens, and his thinking, into realms of greater and greater historical centrality and cultural urgency. During the past decade, he has focussed much of his exacting attentions upon the always volatile city where he was born and lived as a child—Vienna—returning to photograph the city he continues to think of as a “city of thoughts” (which is the title of a sumptuous book Schreier published in 2010).
Schreier’s searching and sombre re-rapprochement with Vienna, inextricably bound up with questions of his (and all) Jewishness (his father was Jewish, but his mother, an artist and noted stage designer, was not) has resulted in his tender, questing pursuit of issues about loss and cultural displacement.
One of the vivid outcroppings of these preoccupations resulted, first, in an important exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ottawa in 2009. Employing as its title a characteristically majestic Schreier paradox, Storyteller / Waiting for Words, this moving exhibition, superbly curated by the gallery’s former Curator of Contemporary Art, Emily Falvey (whose catalogue essay, “The Unforgettable Forgotten,” is a delicate and nuanced masterwork of critical writing), presented Vienna not as a an specimen city, anthropologically speaking, but, as Falvey puts it, the locus of “metaphors of absence.”
For Falvey, the exhibition was “torn by an injustice inherent to all Holocaust representation:” that is, to negotiate the gap between a social demand to realistically represent disaster “through some form of living engagement, some actual proof of testimony, and the impossibility of fully expressing the immensity of loss and suffering.” This agonizing duality comes to a kind of quiet photographic apotheosis in Schreier’s beautiful and troublingly oblique, multum-in-parvo (much in little) photographs taken at Simom Wiesenthal’s Jewish Museum, located in Vienna’s Judenplatz. Schreier’s viewer doesn’t get to tour the museum, but is invited, rather, into an accumulation of overlooked, adjacent, peripheral, almost wayward photographic moments within the building (steps, panels of glass, shards of concrete) from which emerge not an architectural structure but a continuum of what Emily Falvey identifies “the silent intersubjectivity of a community united by loss.”
I think of Michael Schreier essentially as a nomad—in the sense that the word is used by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their infamous little book, Nomadology (1986). “The nomad,” they write, “distributes himself in a smooth space, he occupies, inhabits, holds that space; that is his territorial principle. It is therefore false to define the nomad by movement. [Arnold] Toynbee is profoundly right to suggest that the nomad is on the contrary he who does not move.”
Which seems to be the way he confronts the people he photographs. They move past him in the streets—the Brownian Motion of The Other. He asks if he might photograph them. The encounter is momentary. What do we know of these people? What does Schreier know of them? Nothing at all. He tries to pin them, butterfly- like, to the taxonomic velvet of classification, assigning each of the photographs a timeline number (for example, 29..09..07, 10..43..43), thus presumably fixing the photographic moment in reclaimable time. It doesn’t work as a clerical device (any more than rows if tattooed arm-numbers once did). On the contrary, the numbers seem to cut the subjects loose from the specifics of their tethering, releasing them into a shaky infinity of the once half-remembered.