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A Photographer Embeds in Underground Music

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A concert at The Empty Bottle, one of Chicago’s most famous underground music venues, was the opening event of photographer Michael Schmelling’s exhibition in October at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Your Blues. The gig featured the Cairo Gang, Lucki Eck$, Negative Scanner, Nnamdi’s Sooper Dooper Secret Side Project, Mormon Toasterhead, The Funs, and The Drum, with readings by Tim Kinsella and Jimmy Whispers. The intro to Schmelling’s commissioned project on the Chicago music scene focused on new and upcoming bands and musicians, and some of those on stage were the artist’s subjects.
 

Michael Schmelling, Untitled (DJ), 1990/2014

Michael Schmelling, Untitled (DJ), 1990/2014

After having spent 18 months in underground clubs, garages, basements, house parties, and DIY music spaces, like the now-defunct Animal Kingdom, Schmelling eschewed the beaten path for a deeper insight into the city’s punk and hip hop scene, providing a kind of cultural commentary. His view of the alternative music scene was highly romanticized, and through photography, he gave an autobiographical element to Your Blues, which took its name from the Canadian indie-rock band Destroyer’s song of the same name. The exhibition served as an homage to both the artist’s personal taste in music and the historic, deep-rooted music tradition in Chicago of blues and jazz. Today the lines between genres in the Chicago music scene are greatly blurred, and this diversity is captured in single images and series of collages and installations, eventually expanding beyond the city’s underground communities and making Your Blues about much more than music.

Experimenting with blurred backgrounds, double exposures, and lens flare –the haze illusion that occurs when a powerful light source strikes the camera lens– Schmelling captures the feeling of the night in images that bring to mind post-punk album covers. Your Blues explored the creative space between the subject, the artist, and the audience by documenting a contemporary youth subculture in which he was also personally immersed. The images create an atmosphere that is hot and loud. Cloaked in thick clouds of smoke with rough, out-of-focus exposures they make for a raw and intimate depiction of these underground scenes’ behind-the-scenes reality. Working in exquisitely peculiar ways, the artist has mixed a variety of sounds and trends, aesthetic influences, and ways of manipulating the photographic image. With the help of a few locals in the know — among them Chicago Reader music writer Leor Galil and musician/author Tim Kinsella who wrote the essay accompanying the exhibit — Schmelling dove head first into the independent music scene. Old-record hunting, bar-hopping, and research into the archives of obscure labels (Delmark, Numero Group) are among others, his inspirations to paint, the walls of a narrow gallery room, pink and in combination with vinyl flooring, to recreate a music studio atmosphere.
 

Untitled (Jimmy Whispers), 2013, Michael Schmelling

Michael Schmelling, Untitled (Jimmy Whispers_37), 2013

What seems like an honest portrayal of the music scene reveals the confidence of an artist who takes his medium seriously and manages to bring viewers deep into his artistic vision. As much as he manages to translate the extraordinary nature of his subject matter into his work, Schmelling’s local creatures of the night are under-represented outside of the Chicago music scene and are most likely to remain so.

 

“Your Blues”

Why does every one of her lovers leave her?

I’m ill-equipped to judge the tale of a woman.

“That inviting army slut!… The Colonel’s in a rut!” – back at the base they’re saying –

Now each day when he awakes his prayers take the form of one question –

“How is it that we can be both Skating and Dying?

Lord knows I’ve been trying…”

Your Blues was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago from Oct 16 — Dec 21, 2014.

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