+ By Andrea Stuart + Photos by Greg Schmigel
The sky weighs heavily upon a water-stained concrete barrier. Fingers of moss stalk it from the opposite side, adding the only discernible color to a monochromatic street line. Geometrically banal buildings sulk in their stillness while passersby carry wilted postures, some of whom don black garments draped over slumped shoulders that are loosely strung to kyphotic spines. Entering East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie creates a diluted sense of humanity, like walking into 1940s Germany, where the scent of oppression loiters and desperation is seen in sterile facial expressions.
Greg Schmigel, then a junior in high school, was ankle deep in an overcast encounter, just yards from the kaleidoscopic “Free World,” only he was anything but dismissive of the experience. On the contrary, he seems to have extracted something ethereal that has colorized his current black and white street photography.
A graphic designer and photographer, Schmigel is attracted to cultural textures. As happy accidents go, his first experiences with mobile street photography began with a cavalier iPhone 2G purchase. Inconspicuous and gritty, the iPhone became Schmigel’s preferred travel companion. He found himself digging for his camera phone each time the streets moved him. “At the amateur stage, I tried different things, learning from books and friends. Then, I was introduced to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street photography,” says Schmigel.
Although he had previously admired Garry Winogrand’s street photography and had indulged in hobby photography with his Canon, he didn’t develop a relationship with the art form until a friend of his, Ricky Carioti, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist with the Washington Post—whose work Schmigel respects—suggested that Schmigel become acquainted with Cartier-Bresson’s photographs.
A denizen of the world, Schmigel harbors appreciation for diversity. To him, there is something about Cartier-Bresson’s work—the juxtaposition between sincere depictions of tragedy, symbols of hope, and seemingly mundane moments that take on three-dimensional qualities through emotions born from right timing and angles.
Street photography has allowed Schmigel to become aware of his surroundings in a way they didn’t exist before. His eyes, able to focus on the peripheral world as clearly as that which is mesial, may as well be periscopes capable of discerning moods, grains of truth, and emotive qualities in otherwise ordinary scenarios. “When I began snapping shots with my phone in 2008, I just thought I’d take a few casual pictures,” says Schmigel. And then, something unexpected happened. “That’s when I became more serious about composition, light, and trying to compose meaningful photographs on the street.”
His previous camera, the Canon EOS 30D, became all but exiled as the iPhone made more and more appearances. Part of the appeal is in how the palm-sized device can seem unobtrusive in comparison to the colossal cameras most photographers use. Where a subject might feel bullied by a telephoto or macro lens, subjects respond favorably (and candidly) to the petite, familiar, and relatable mobile device. “Some photographers use mobile cameras as discretional devices, but I hold it like a camera,” he confesses. “There is truth to the fact that you are able to get in close to people on the street and they don’t realize. But the edge for me is that I still treat it like a camera. For me, it is about the comfort of using it.” What street photography has really done for Schmigel is open a dialogue between him and his subjects.
Perusing Schmigel’s projects (namely “Just What I See” and “We’re All Strangers”) feels a bit like reading a memoir written in pencil on the back of a smudged napkin, previously tucked in with pocket lint before eventually being matted, framed, and hung in a gallery beside Andy Warhol and Baron Wolman: the inane and carnal filaments of life marrying to make a perfectly comprehensible tapestry.
After his stay in Germany, Schmigel lived in Belgium for a year with a host family, who quickly became an extension of his paternal family. It didn’t take long before he learned the native tongue, eventually becoming fluent in Spanish and Dutch, as well as conversational in German and French. “I dabble in Italian, too,” he says humbly while speaking about his propensity toward linguistics. “However, if you ask me to recite the periodic table of elements, you’ll never get it out of me.” A chuckle escapes him.
There are recurrent splashes of levity as he shares memories from his time in Belgium. “I used to ride my bike 12 miles to school every day, rain or shine. It’s just how they did things,” he says. In the winter, armies of droplets would splatter on the umbrella he held overhead while the remaining drops bypassed the portable shelter, creating a soggy mess of his exposed clothing. When he arrived home, his favorite dish was often awaiting him: stamppot, a comforting medley of mashed potatoes, endives, and other vegetables, a Dutch staple. “Little things like that I hold dear to me.”
Schmigel’s photography is perhaps born from moments like these, eschewing gratuitous and tailored concepts, and instead producing bite-sized snapshots of life, fermenting moments that become at once breathless and eternal—eliminating the need for a prologue.
Schmigel recently put his mobile shutterbug skills to the test when he covered the 2014 Silopanna Music Festival. Nervous at first, he treated the experience like street photography, unsure of how it would unfold. “I remember being in the pit when the bigger bands were playing. I’m standing next to a guy with a 300mm lens, and we’re doing the same thing,” says Schmigel. “It was rewarding when he turned to me, gave me a head nod, and said, ‘Do your thing, Man.’”
Running on the philosophy of “connected photography,” Schmigel continues to open new lines of communication between his camera and subjects, encouraging others to do the same. “You don’t need a reason or a certain type of camera to take a picture,” he adds. “Chase Jarvis said, ‘The best camera is the one that’s with you.’”
Schmigel’s works will appear alongside the work of Andy Warhol, Jules Aarons, Larry Fink and others during The Social Medium exhibition at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA, from October 31, 2014 through April 19, 2015.