by Juliana Halpert

Published on 12/25/ 2016

It’s rare that two copies of a photo book aren’t exactly alike. It’s even rarer that all 300 copies are each unique, as is the case with Michael Schmelling’s 2015 project, My Blank Pages. For this collection of images, assembled from over a decade of archived prints, the photographer annotated each page of every book, writing notes along the margins in soft, semi-cursive pencil. Snapshots of friends, old apartments, and strange ephemera are decorated with both concrete references—street names, years, cities—and more personal phrases, the first thoughts of a jogged memory. The result is equally enigmatic and intimate; Schmelling’s images allude, while his notes divulge. Is memory better nourished by artifacts of our past, or the fleeting recollection of a feeling? My Blank Pages suggests that neither can stand alone.

Juliana Halpert: My Blank Pages is such an interesting premise—how did you conceive of this idea? How does it fit in with your other books, and greater body of work as a whole?
Michael Schmelling: Whenever I finish a book project, it’s a bit like going through a breakup; once it’s done, I can’t imagine making another one. But then six months pass, and I’m ready to say something again. And this time, I was trying to wear my heart on my sleeve. My other books have been very project-oriented, but this one took form because I just wanted to put something together that was about my life—something more autobiographical. I wanted to say more about myself and to be a bit more direct in that regard.
Spread from My Blank Pages, 2015.

By the time I left New York for Los Angeles, I had almost 14 years’ worth of 4x6 prints. They really felt like the work that was most important to me, personally: all these pictures of my friends, my life, random outtakes from work. And a lot of pictures in the book are specifically from an apartment that I had on Mulberry street. There’s a lot from that era.

But that initial idea didn’t even involve the text or the writing. I had started putting the pictures together, and I made a few dummies of the book. It seemed like the images really needed captions, so I started taking notes on the pages. I was writing in pencil, and began writing these phrases—and I thought it was looking pretty good. It became this big what-if: What if I started writing in every copy of the book? It seemed totally absurd—it still seems totally absurd—but once the door was open, I decided that I had to walk through it.

JH: Are the annotations generally the same across the 300 copies, or do they change? How do you arrive at a sense of completion, when you could conceivably just keep writing?
MS: It always seems like there’s another opportunity to add something, which is a weird feeling. There are some phrases that have stuck around since the beginning, and many that have developed over time. When I first got the book back from the printer, I timed myself to see how long it would take to do all the annotations that were in the original dummy. Now I have it all memorized, but the first time I sat down and did it, it took an hour and a half. It seemed crazy.

“It became this big what-if: What if I started writing in every copy of the book? Once the door was open, I decided that I had to walk through it.”

I sat down with Mike Slack, one of the Ice Plant publishers, and cut at least half of the original text. After those edits I could finish a book in about a half hour. But then a compulsive side of me took over—after the first 75 copies, I started adding more and more to each one. Some weeks I write things that seem particularly relevant to that moment. I like that they’re all a bit different. It helped me realize that each of the 300 books is one component of the project as a whole.

JH: What was your editing process like—how did you cull images from what I assume is a pretty robust archive?
MS: I always get 4x6 prints made from each roll of film, and then scan them in pairs on a flatbed. I’ll usually do an initial selection at first glance, and will make an edit by pairing them together. I’d say that half of the images in the book were edited this way, and the other half were chosen by going back through older prints and finding images that best connected the ideas to each other.
There’s also a section in the middle of the book that doesn’t have writing in it, called “The Week of No Computer.” It was a portfolio I made for Tiny Vices—do you remember Tiny Vices?

JH: Yeah! Run by [photographer] Tim Barber, right?
MS: Yeah—it was such a great site. Tim asked me to provide a portfolio, and I didn’t want to send him any of my work that was already online. I started going through all these outtakes from shoots, and all the residue that just accumulates from working as a photographer.

Tiny Vices made a small print-on-demand book from the portfolio—I don’t think we made more than 50 total—but I always really loved that work, and when I started developing My Blank Pages, I definitely saw aspects of “The Week of No Computer” in it. The latter doesn’t really exist anywhere anymore, so I wanted to include it. I thought it never really had its time.

JH: It seems that one of the most effective ways to market yourself as an editorial or commercial photographer is to have one trademark, or one “look.” One thing that I really appreciate about your work is how aesthetically, and thematically, versatile it is. Is that a priority for you?
MS: I guess you’re right, I’ve never really had a “thing.” Occasionally I’ll do a talk at a school, and I never have an overarching theme to my presentation. But I generally go back to this idea of showing a project, and then showing the work that I got as a result of that project. There can be a reductive element to assignment work, where somebody knows that you shoot one type of thing, and they want you to replicate that look or revisit a certain subject again and again. But I like the way that some of my interests have carried over into my commissioned work.

My first book, Shut Up Truth, was about my friend James Holloway, who lives by himself and works as a movie projectionist. Many of the pictures in the book are just of him, sitting alone in a room. One of the first assignments I ever got, shortly after, was from Wired magazine, which sent me to shoot this guy who owned the URL jesus.com. Very early–Internet era. He dressed and looked like a version of Jesus—long hair, beard, et cetera. He used this site as a way to meet girls.
From Shut Up Truth, 2007.
From Shut Up Truth, 2007.

I was getting a lot of assignments like that, shooting guys who live alone and have a lot of eccentricities. I definitely enjoyed that—and it ultimately led to my project on hoarders. Then I started shooting a lot of objects, people’s possessions. It’s interesting how these assignments tie in to my own projects.

JH: Was your 2010 book, Atlanta, born out of editorial work?
MS: I’d often been sent to Atlanta for editorial work, but the book didn’t come from any specific assignments. A friend of mine is a writer living there, and the two of us pitched a book idea for Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series. Each book in the series is written by a different person, focusing on a particular album, so we proposed OutKast’s 1998 record Aquemini. We ended up getting a contract, so I went down to Atlanta to start working on it in 2007.

“As soon as you’re in Atlanta, and get a small grasp of the hip hop scene, the network opens up. A lot is on the surface—you could walk into a club and see T.I. or Big Boi.”

Literally the day I got there, we went to the video shoot for that Soulja Boy song [“Crank That (Soulja Boy)”], and I immediately realized that if we made this book about Aquemini, it was going to be a bit anachronistic. Too focused on tracing things that weren’t there anymore. As influential as that record was, the idea felt a little dead. This was the height of the MySpace era—Soulja Boy was one of the first artists to get signed to a record deal from a MySpace song. I quickly got out of the 33 ⅓ contract and decided to make a larger book about what was actually happening, then and there.
From Atlanta, 2010.

JH: How did you penetrate the scene in Atlanta so quickly, and seek out the subjects you had in mind?
MS: For the Aquemini book, I had made a list of people to contact and places to go. But for the new project, I didn’t have a plan. I would be in New York, calling people down there and trying to set things up, and it always went nowhere. But as soon as you’re in Atlanta, and get a small grasp of the hip hop scene, and meet one or two people, the network opens up. A lot is on the surface—like, you could walk into a club and see T.I. or Big Boi. It’s a lot more accessible than you might think.

Also, I was always meeting people who would want a photo for their mixtape cover or something like that. Atlanta is still very much the commercial hub of the South, and I really got the sense that people were always hustling, networking, and trying to make connections. It felt like people were approaching me as much as I was approaching them. But it was always a challenge to explain exactly what I was doing—there was nothing I could really reference, and I struggled to convey what the project would become. There are some great books about hip hop scenes, but they’re all about different eras, in different towns. I couldn’t necessarily point to those as a model for what I was doing.
From Atlanta, 2010.
From Atlanta, 2010.

JH: In this project, it seems like a lot of your subjects are very aware of the camera, and how they want to portray themselves in front of it. Did that affect your process, or your vision for the project at all?
MS: Totally. The role of the photographer or the videographer is a somewhat of a staple in any music scene. There’s always someone documenting. And in hip hop, there’s so much posturing, and I really tried to embrace that. Hip hop is really great at incorporating clichés and expanding on them. The idea of someone staring right into the camera and posing wouldn’t exactly be something that I would have sought out, but I really warmed up to it.

JH: There’s a mysterious, even secretive element to many of your images. Standing alone, some almost feel abstract. What’s your relationship to context, and photography’s supposed obligation to inform the viewer?
MS: There isn’t a lot of premeditation or planning when I’m shooting. I’m sure a lot of photographers would agree that there’s something instinctual or innate about making their work. When I got out of college, I spent a year working for the Associated Press and shooting 2-3 news stories a day. Press conferences, real estate, portraits, whatever they’d give me. Most of the pictures I was taking had to be extremely context-driven.
From The Plan, 2009.

But with my projects, I often shy away from too many contextual details, and try to make the effect much more experiential and open-ended. The danger of that is getting too narrow, or vague, with nothing grounding the work. But I’ve always been into a minimal aesthetic, and I think a lot of the My Blank Pages images especially are very pared-down.

"I was trying to avoid outright sentimentality. The risk of an autobiographical project is just showing bad photos of your significant other that no one really cares about. "

JH: That’s interesting. In My Blank Pages, it does seem like you’re upending the traditional hierarchy of presenting information—journalism’s inverted pyramid, putting the most crucial details first.
MS: Yeah, definitely. I even wrote those phrases in the book—”the inverted pyramid,” and “bury the lede.”

JH: A lot of these images are quite intimate, but was there anything from your life that you wanted to omit? What subject matter, if any, did you avoid?
MS: I wouldn’t say anything was off-limits. But I was trying to avoid outright sentimentality. The risk of an autobiographical project is like, just showing bad photos of your significant other that no one really cares about. I have my camera with me all the time, but I’m not shooting every single part of my day. But there’s definitely an emotional component to the writing, which functions separately.

JH: One of the things that I love most about the My Blank Pages books is their object-ness; the project can’t really be replicated in another format. How do you feel about seeing and presenting your work online?
MS: I always want my images that exist online to have their own identity. I think the websites that I respond to best feel really specific to the medium; they’re showing you the work in a way that’s unique. I actually have an unqualified love for my site—the idea for the back end is borrowed from old versions Dreamweaver, where you’d build sites one image at a time.

I think it’d be fun to find a way to put My Blank Pages on my website. I’ve been trying to figure out how to format it. I kind of miss the earlier days of websites, when they were all a bit more wormhole-y. It’s nice to get a little lost.