Your Blues, My Blues

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If I had to describe what I’m looking for, it would probably be this: I want to look at pictures that make me feel in love with photography again. It’s obvious that I don’t get to enjoy such pictures all that often. But at the very least, I want to feel that whatever it is that I’m looking at was made with that intention: After all, if you, the photographer, are not passionate about your work, how can you expect your audience to be?

There is very little photography about music that I enjoy. I love listening to music — all types, ranging from fairly abstract electronic music to black metal to Polish folk punk to whatever else. But most photography made around music just doesn’t excite me at all. Maybe music about photography is also like dancing about architecture?

Concert photography is, well, mostly awkward, and how could it not be? You could attempt to visually put into your frame what you experience, but then you usually end up with either motion blur or a bunch of people oddly grimacing. Were it not for a lack of guitars, you essentially wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a rock concert photo and one done at an air-guitar competition. Much other music photography is advertizing photography, done for the sake of album covers, written articles, or whatever else.

And then I came across Michael Schmelling’s Your Blues. The book instantly satisfied the need I expressed above, making me feel in love with photography again. How did — and still does — it do that? To begin with, while it’s a book centering on music, specifically music in Chicago, it’s mostly being that in a loose sense: there is very little of what I described above, and where traces of that appears, it mostly refuses to follow what one could think of the usual conventions of music photography.

It is, in other words, not a book attempting to confirm a viewer’s expectations. Nothing is being sold here, no artist, no style of music, not even a particular life style or scene. As much as I dislike using the word, given it often is so badly abused, the book is inclusive in a very broad sense. But it is not inclusive through all possible edges being rounded, leaving behind a general feeling of insufferable blandness.

I suppose another way to describe the book would be to say that it’s not so much about music as it is, to borrow and adapt a phrase I heard David Campany use in the context of art, of being with music, whether it’s making it or experiencing it as an audience. Once that idea in the book is established, anything can visually become a part of that. Well, at least that’s what one is led to believe. It’s Schmelling skill at finding the right moments, objects, crops that makes it work.

I’m very strongly reminded of the work of the late Michael Schmidt, in particular Waffenruhe. Photographed in then West Berlin, the book of course is about the Wall, but going far beyond that, it’s a book about an atmosphere. It’s a book about finding oneself in that odd place at that particular moment in time (ironically just a couple of years before that Wall opened). Much like Schmidt, Schmelling is trying to get feelings — and not so much objects or people — into his pictures, which often enough arrive at being very consequential because they show something so seemingly inconsequential.

As a book, Your Blues employs a nifty technique to communicate with the viewer. While starting out with the gallery-show-on-paper format (blank page, picture, blank page, picture, …), after a while groupings of photographs pop up. Up to eight photographs vie for the viewer’s attention in various spreads, which has the effect of drastically charging up the atmosphere. It is mostly in these groupings that some of the aforementioned conventions of music photography can be found. But because they’re merely parts of a larger visual set, the power of their cliches is vastly reduced.

It’s visually thrilling — just as thrilling, I should say, as finding so many breathtakingly beautiful photographs in the sections before and after, photographs that are simple, that showcase a photographer who does not feel the need to dazzle his audience with any trickery: these photographs don’t feel self-conscious. Pictures, in other words, are allowed to be pictures, with no added mumbo-jumbo needed. That’s the best one can hope for.

Highly recommended.

Your Blues; photographs by Michael Schmelling; 168 pages; The Ice Plant/Skinnerbooxs; 2018

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 5.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.4

Ratings explained here.