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Interviews: Michael Schmelling

Atlanta by Michael Schmelling. Chronicle Books, 2010.
There has been a lot of buzz around New York based photographer Michael Schmelling in the last year. His recent project Atlanta received a great amount of attention, being featured in a number of publications including Esquire, Turnstyle, Time magazine's Lightbox among many others. And its easy to see why Atlanta has garnered so much attention; not only is it a detailed view into the Georgia city's hip hop scene, the work transcends audiences, being simultaneously fine art, documentary, fashion and a testament to pop culture. The cultural abundance in Atlanta weaves together portraits of the people, the cars, tattoos, nightclubs, food, essays, interviews and many other intricate elements that make Atlanta one of the most visually powerful books to come out in the last year. Schmelling has several previous publications as well, Shut Up Truth, The Week of No Computer, The Plan and was a main contributor for The Wilco Book. All of these titles showcase the artist's deep understanding of both the photobook as a unique object and its importance in the visual communication of a complex project.

When working on our Best Books of 2010 feature, Sarah Bradley and Antone Dolezal were intrigued by the diversity of Schmelling's book selections and began to collaborate on the possibility of an interview. His unique preferences seemed to reflect his own decisions when considering personal book projects. And although there is an abundance of information out there about the photographer, we couldn't resist finding out a little more about his approach to the many different facets of photography he energetically pursues. Schmelling was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to answer our prying questions and we hope it adds another layer to the rich content that is already out there about this prolific photographer.


photo-eye:   You shoot both commercially as well as work on your own personal projects and we've heard that you have a background in photojournalism. How has this informed your personal work? What are the differences in approach when shooting commercially compared to shooting for personal projects? Is there some overlap, and if so, how do you merge these genres of photography?

James Holloway with Shut Up Truth, the book about him
and his relationship with photographer Michael Schmelling
Michael Schmelling:   Their influence on each other seems to work in a couple different ways.  In some instances it feels like a project will develop aesthetically from some direct desire to get away from what I've been doing commercially. I'm thinking here about the work in my first book Shut Up Truth in particular, a project I started while I was making a living working on news assignments in New York. But there's so much to be learned from being a commercial photographer, and so much of that experience can feed your own work, lead you to new stories, new approaches, or even just give you a sense of what not to do with your own work.

But there is definitely some overlap. The best assignments are the ones that blur the line between the two, that feel a bit like my own work - both in terms of subject and content. 

With the Atlanta project I consciously worked at merging these different ways of taking pictures - some photos were shot the way I'd approach a magazine assignment, some are similar to how I shot The Plan, parts of it feels like The Wilco Book, and some of it takes a photojournalistic approach, and some of it is its own thing.

PE:   How did Atlanta come about? We've heard that the project began with a book on Outkast - what happened to that project? How did the focus change and what made you realize that you wanted to tell a broader story?

MS:   Atlanta started out as a conversation I had with a friend of mine about making a photo book about a record album. We talked about a lot of different records, how you could approach them visually, with the intent being to reflect the feeling of the record as well as make a response to it, make something new from it. We ended up working that conversation into a pitch for a book about Outkast's 1998 landmark record Aquemini. We got a contract to start work on the project - but almost from my first day working in Atlanta, I realized that there was a much broader contemporary story to tell.

It felt like the best way to approach it would be to look at the Outkast record by looking at what followed it, what the hip hop scene looked like 10 years later - looking back by looking forward. I was able to get out of the initial book contract, and pitch the larger project as a bigger, broader book about the Atlanta scene as a whole. The earlier work on Outkast was incorporated into this, and much of that work acts as a bit of a prologue in the final project. 

From the Appendix of Atlanta
PE:   Atlanta is very well designed - the text and images flow together effortlessly and I love the mass of text at the back - included almost as an appendix, but in a way that makes you want to immediately go through the images again. The writing seems to be very well integrated into the photography. Were the writers a part of the evolution of the project or did this come in afterwards? How involved were you in the design? Were there any books that informed the process?

MS:   Kelefa Sanneh wrote the text that runs throughout the book, he was very much involved in all stages of the project. He made several trips to Atlanta while I was working on the project, and he tailored much of his writing to reflect the themes within the book, and the narrative of the photos. We worked on finding the best spots to place the text within the book. Part of the goal was to make the text explanatory to the outsider, but not distracting or redundant to people more familiar with the scene. Will Welch conducted and edited the interviews in the appendix, which adds another unique voice to the book. Will's from Atlanta originally, so he was also integral from the beginning of the process. And then there's my writing and captions towards the end of the book which hopefully add a third or fourth voice.

The design of the book was a collaboration between me and Rodrigo Corral and Steve Attardo. I was very involved in every aspect of the book's design. Rodrigo and Kelefa and Will are all old friends of mine - so it was pretty easy to collaborate closely.

My experience working on The Wilco Book definitely informed the making of Atlanta, and like I said, I think pieces of my other books can be found in there as well.  Lots of other books came to mind while putting the book together - Jamel Shabazz's Back In The Days, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to name a couple shoes too big to fill.

From Atlanta
PE:   The Atlanta project seems endless - the content you've posted on the Atlanta Revisited blog has some great information about the process and full scope of the project. It seems like the information and interesting connections are infinite - not just photographically, but editorially, culturally - literary connections, etc. When do you call it quits and move on to something else? Was there a lot that you had to leave out? Would you consider doing another book or is this project completed in print form?

MS:   Yeah I love that there's always another connection to be made, something else to be built upon, reinvestigated, rescanned, rephotographed, remade, a new response, a tangent to follow  - there's always another way of looking at it. I don't know if I ever call it quits exactly, I feel like I could still go back and work on any of my projects - but I guess when you finish up a book, it definitely feels like the end of something. Things keep changing in Atlanta, I'd love to go down there and continue some kind of work on it - for the blog, or a film project, more photos - it's still open in a way.

There was a lot I left out, but nothing integral. And like you said, a lot of that made it to the blog - which, conceptually, is still part of the project for me.

An the original dummy of The Plan and a smudged up copy of the final version
PE:   The Plan is a wonderfully designed book. It looks like a phonebook - thick with a soft cover, newsprint-like pages, even a section of green pages in the back.  Photobooks are typically seen as rarified objects - something that's precious and collectible and can sell for enormous amounts of money. But here, you've presented this photobook in the guise of something that's disposable - and at this day in age, almost useless. To me, it emphasizes the arbitrariness of what we decide to keep - which seems to play directly into the images of the homes of hoarders. Can you talk a bit about the design of this book? I've read that the process of this project involved printing all of the images you took to allow for accumulation. Can you touch on the importance of process and object in how you execute and present your work?

MS:   Thanks - that really gets at one of the most important aspects of the project - the question of what we decide to keep, and the importance we ascribe to those things. That was very much a part of the concept behind the book - but honestly something that didn't occur until late in the project. The Plan started without a book directly in mind, and its first incarnation was as a show of about 35 framed images in a gallery, and a smaller second room of found objects and things saved from the homes of hoarders or gathered elsewhere.  Though the show looked good, it was pretty clear that there was much more to say, or a better way to say it. So a year or so after that show, I went back to the project and started scanning all the 4x6 images I had had printed while shooting the project.  From there I made roughly a 650 page dummy on a laser printer, in color - a picture on almost every page. I divided the book into chapters, one for each apartment, and then there was an appendix that was similar to the edit I'd made for the show which included some found materials and images like the room in the show had.

J+L Books was interested in publishing it, but a book of that size proved to be pretty costly, so we came up with the idea of doing it on newsprint. It took a long time to get to this point in the project - I'd stopped shooting it a year or two earlier - but the process, in the end, took us to this perfect solution.  The project really took on a new life once we'd made this decision, and the form of the book began to mimic the content and really define the project conceptually.

From The Plan
PE:   The images for The Plan were shot in color. Do you think anything was sacrificed by printing this work in black & white?

MS:   At some point it became really clear that what was important with The Plan was that the work was getting out there, and that the conversation could go from there. I also felt like conceptually the book had come into it's own - everything seemed to fit, it became its own thing, so there was no need to worry about the question of color. That said, the work looks great in color and there's still a place for it in the work's presentation in other forms or other books.

PE:   Atlanta is definitely a documentary, but it's also clearly guided. Your voice as a photographer is very clear, partially in the ways that you choose to shoot and present different elements of the project. Can you talk about what influences these decisions and how you decided on the sequencing of this book?

MS:   The timing of those decisions is hard to pin down, or figure out exactly how they were made - but it seems to me that much of that process unfolds in a really natural way, as an extension of immersing yourself in a project, following leads and trusting your instincts and your own idiosyncrasies.  The sequencing took a while to pin down - I knew that I wanted the front of the book to give a sense of history and place, an introduction - and I knew the end needed to have elements of history and nostalgia - and in between I felt like I needed to develop different sections that could have a bit of overlap to them.  Pretty simple, but also pretty challenging since the book is generally about one large thing - hip hop in Atlanta - but I wanted to discuss it, look at it in a bunch of different forms, show its different aspects, let a viewer see it all in different ways.

From Atlanta
PE:   In looking at your list of Best Books of 2010, we felt that we may have detected a bit of research for Atlanta. The list also was impressively diverse. What is your relationship to the photobook? Are you a collector? Do you spend time keeping up with the new stuff that's coming out?

MS:   I have a fair amount of photobooks, but I don't consider myself a collector - I don't really have too many classics, just my favorites and then some others. I love the genre, and I think I've had many formative experiences looking at great photobooks. It's always exciting to see the new stuff that's coming out, to see a new book push the conversation in a different direction.

PE:   At photo-eye, we get to chat with a number of photographer's we highly admire and are always interested in hearing who their influences are, regardless of its relation to photography. Who has influenced your vision as a photographer and where do you look to for continued inspiration?

MS:   I've got a lot of good friends that make great work and keep me really inspired and motivated. I listen to a lot of music and I try to read as much as I can. Just trying to think of some things/people that have inspired me in the last year or so, there's Thomas Bernhard, Kelly Reichardt, Jennifer Egan, Oraien Catledge, Maren Ade's Everyone Else, working on Ads with Richard Maxwell, a rough draft of Greg Halpern's new book, My Dinner With Andre, Stan Douglas, Destroyer's Bay Of Pigs, Arthur Russell, Travis Porter, and I recently read C and Remainder by Tom McCarthy - those have kept me going for a few months now.

See books by Michael Schmelling here.