Schmelling shows Chicago music scene from different perspective

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

While amateur photographers are busy taking pictures of their lunches, there are still artists such as Chicagoan Michael Schmelling documenting cultural events. His show “Michael Schmelling: Your Blues” runs Oct. 16–Dec. 21 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan Ave.

Schmelling is an award-winning photographer known for his books, including “The Wilco Book,” which he shot while working closely with the band Wilco, and “Atlanta,” a book detailing the Atlanta hip-hop scene. Though he has become a prolific photographer, Schmelling, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, said he did not find his passion for the medium until after he entered high school.

“My mom gave me her camera when we went on vacation, and I started taking photos,” Schmelling said. “My parents had a darkroom in our basement at home, so I started printing photos from there. After that, I got a job working for my high school newspaper.”

He said he did not consider a career in photography until his freshman year of college.

“It didn’t really occur to me that it was something you could do as a career until I went to school in Iowa for a year at Drake [University],” Schmelling said. “It was then that I kind of clued into the idea that I might actually be able to do this for a living.”

After catching the photography bug his freshman year, Schmelling decided to transfer to a college in a space that would allow him to shoot things that interested him. He enrolled at New York University and quickly fell in love with street photography, he said.

“My whole world expanded,” Schmelling said. “I just wanted to be in New York. I started doing street photography and shooting in the city. It changed everything being exposed to all sorts of new things and people that were interested in photography and the way college just really opens your world.”

Schmelling said his fondness for street photography has stuck with him throughout the years. His upcoming exhibit at the MOCP will feature photos from his 18-month immersion in Chicago, he said. During that period, Schmelling engulfed himself in the Chicago music scene, focusing not only on the musicians but also on the overall music production process and the people who enjoy it. He said he prefers long-term, in-depth projects over some of the advertising photography that Schmelling has done in the past.

“I really prefer working on personal projects,” Schmelling said. “The project I’ve been working on is definitely what I’ve been working toward my whole life–just long-term projects that allow you to explore a subject in depth.”

Schmelling said that he tries to approach all of his projects in a different way. 

“For ‘The Wilco Book,’ we really tried to make a project about the band that wasn’t entirely about them with their faces in every photo,” Schmelling said. It’s more about the process of making music. With ‘Atlanta,’ there was a very specific environment in Atlanta, with its own color palette and its own brightness to it. I think there’s overlap between all of my projects. There are things I learned that I bring to all of my projects.”

The inspiration for the “Your Blues” title came from a song by the same name by one of his favorite bands, Destroyer, Schmelling said. In addition to the song title, the installation was also heavily influenced by his appreciation for the iconic Chicago blues scene.

“Working in Chicago as a photographer, especially working on a music project in particular, I think the blues is the overwhelming tradition that you have to contend with,” Schmelling said. “When you mention you’re doing a music project in Chicago to people, they’re like, ‘Oh, are you going to go do the blues?’ It’s kind of this expected thing that you’re supposed to at least touch on. I think that was just something I wanted to contend with and also just wanted to work with the notion of the history of Chicago.”

Schmelling said he liked the idea of using the word “your” in the name of the show because, similar to the way music helps fans feel connected to the show, it gives the audience a sense of ownership.

“‘Your’ kind of touches on the DIY individualism of the music scene in Chicago and also the type of ownership that a fan has over their music,” Schmelling said. “I think most people have favorite songs where they’re like, ‘That’s my song,’ and have this emotional attachment to a song.”

The photographer said he is excited for people to finally see his hard work on display. After spending months on the project, Schmelling said he is ready to portray his take on the Chicago music scene.

“The really exciting thing about this project is getting outside of that zone and getting into the idea of what this work would look like in several rooms,” Schmelling said. “That’s been a really great challenge, and I really hope people get to experience that.”

“Michael Schmelling: Your Blues” runs Oct. 16–Dec. 21 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan Ave.

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