Book Review My Blank Pages By Michael Schmelling Reviewed by Adam Bell Drawn from a personal archive of 4x6 machine prints, the images that make up Michael Schmelling’s My Blank Pages might easily be seen as cast-offs or remainders, either tossed aside or left in a box. Shot on assignment, for fun, or simply out of boredom, they’re tangential shots that never made it, but nevertheless fill a deeper void. Kept for later, they’ve lingered and have found a home in Michael Schmelling’s new book, My Blank Pages.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
My Blank Pages
Photographs by Michael Schmelling
The Ice Plant, Los Angeles, USA, 2015. In English. 192 pp., 6¼x8".
Selected as one of the Best Books of 2015 by Aaron Schuman
Drawn from a personal archive of 4x6 machine prints, the images that make up Michael Schmelling’s My Blank Pages might easily be seen as cast-offs or remainders, either tossed aside or left in a box. Shot on assignment, for fun, or simply out of boredom, they’re tangential shots that never made it, but nevertheless fill a deeper void. Kept for later, they’ve lingered and have found a home in Michael Schmelling’s new book, My Blank Pages. Unbound in a plain manila jacket, the book contains images from Schmelling’s vast archive of photographs dating from 2005 to 2012 when he moved to Los Angeles. Although it may only be a chapter or two, My Blank Pages tells a story about the life of its creator, a photographer driven to photograph the world around him with a relentless eye. At the same time, it’s also an intriguing meditation on the difficulty of creating a personal narrative or biography with photographs. Despite all the hand written notes and the work’s personal nature, there are some things that always remain blank, things that we’ll never know, things that the medium can never divulge.
Although the wide-ranging snapshots collected by Schmelling give the impression of loosely sorted photographs pulled from a shoebox, they are in fact carefully sequenced images that reveal a busy and peripatetic life behind a camera. While there is no consistent narrative, there are reoccurring patterns to the work that reveal Schmelling’s interests — vernacular signage, magazines, newspapers, books, handwritten notes, friends or models, objects and found still-lifes of meals eaten. Perhaps best know as a documentary and portrait photographer, Schmelling offers us a different view of his life as a photographer. Moving between commercial outtakes and more personal imagery, My Blank Pages reveals Schmelling’s voracious eye and compulsive dedication to photography. No scrap of paper is undocumented. No homily plant in the corner is unworthy of a flash soaked caress. Unlike other forgotten or neglected picture archives brought back to life, this is not an excuse to reveal lost gems, but rather a chronology of a life ruthlessly documented.
Accompanying the photographs are unique hand-written notes. Circling the images and hovering in the margins, the penciled in comments and notes enhance the intimate nature of the work, making each copy feel like a personal journal or album. Often drawn from a pamphlet carefully inserted in the folded manila book jacket, the notes reference the content of the images or simply relay Schmelling’s thoughts at the time or in the present. There is even a Post-It note midway through the book. What’s missing are dates, titles, or any back-story. Instead, the pages are filled with fragmentary phrases and marginalia that point in various directions. Given the equally enigmatic and contextless images, the stream-of-consciousness marginalia are more like running commentary than any attempt to explicate the imagery or book. As readers, we’re forced to parse the phrases and fill in the blanks of what feels like a deeply personal scrapbook.
At the center of the book is a condensed version of Schmelling’s The Week of No Computer, which also offers a portrait of the photographer’s daily life. Created in 2008, The Week of No Computer falls roughly in the middle of the time-frame of the book. A sub-chapter or digression, it marks a period where Schmelling’s published material overlaps with the content of this new book. Bookended by a cropped version of the original book cover, the section contains images that deviate from the roughly 4x6 portrait image format of the rest of the book. Here we see square images, collaged or folded images, scanned book pages, a Polaroid, and other ephemera. In many cases, Schmelling moves between photographs of images in magazines or newspapers in situ, a common theme, which offers a vague timeframe for the work, and closely cropped or scanned images of similar content. The recurrence of photographic imagery, either that of Schmelling’s own images rephotographed (in stacks, on the wall, or as contact sheets) or those in various printed matter, reiterates Schmeling’s immersion in and delight with images.
Most of us only look to the pages that seem full, but often those left blank are the ones with the most life. If Schmelling’s pages are crowded with images of Wilco, the Atlanta hip-hop scene, memory competitions, or scenes from the life of an eccentric projectionist in El Paso, TX, what remained blank is now at least partially full. It’s a life of messy apartments and studios, casual pictures of friends, models, books, and the stuff of everyday life. Despite the fullness of textual annotations, careful arrangement and abundant imagery, little is revealed in My Blank Pages. Like any album, it remains partially blank to others. Sometimes a pile of pictures is just that, a pile of pictures — about a life, a way of seeing, and the things and people we’ve seen. In the end, that’s usually more than enough to fill blank pages.—Adam Bell
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, The Art Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, fototazo, Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)
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