/31 Psychotic Reactions

Michael Schmelling

Your Blues

In 2013, I received a commission from the Museum of Contemporary Photography to make a new series of photographs about music in Chicago.

The commission was bringing me back home for the first time in years–I'd grown up in the suburbs that bordered the western edge of Chicago. In the early 90's, as soon as I'd gotten a driver's license, my friends and I were driving into the city to buy cheap beer and see bands play at the clubs that would accept our fake IDs. And on Sunday mornings, I'd drive into the city to take pictures of street markets on the South Side. My most fervent memories of Chicago are tied to those last couple years of high-school when music and photography–and the freedom that both offered–were taking hold of a large part of my identity.

I left when I was 17. And now, here I was at 40–retracing my old steps, facing a flood of memories every time I went 'home'. I was thinking about who I was then, and wondering where my old friends might be now. And what if I had stayed? I was trying to locate myself in those memories, in this place.

It's often been noted that after Chicago became a flyover city in the late-1950's, it began to lose its place in the larger cultural conversations and art movements that have since been dominated by New York and Los Angeles. But that feeling of being just slightly off-the-map has also attracted a certain type of artist or musician to Chicago, and has, perhaps, offered more time for ideas to incubate, and more room for experimentation.

My friend Tim said, "Chicago has deep musical histories, but it's not Nashville or New Orleans. There's no dominant cultural tradition. The dominant form is hybridity." Which seems about right, considering that Chuck Berry came to Chicago and transformed the blues into rock n' roll, or that Frankie Knuckles found house music through disco there.

I kept moving from thoughts of Chicago's musical history, to memories of my own personal history, as I crisscrossed the city alone at night–stepping down stairs into basement shows, or crammed into a crowded bar, standing just off the side of the stage with cameras tucked in my bag, waiting in the dark for a communal experience with strangers.

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