“The first thing you do when you get to town is turn on the radio” says Michael Schmelling in the notes to his latest book Atlanta. It all started with the music. During his frequent photographic assignments on the hip-hop scene there, Schmelling began to formulate an idea for a book. One he says, “reflected both the content of an album and the context in which the record was made.” Keeping an ear out for an album or artist whose work he wanted to capture, he hit upon OutKast’s 1998 record Aquemini. “It’s an album packed with imagery, characters and narratives,” says Schmelling. “It plays like a map of Atlanta, gives you the lay of the land, the accents, and even tells you what the weather is like”.
Of course Atlanta rap history goes back much earlier than 1998, but for Schmelling, Outkast was his introduction to Atlanta hip-hop and to the city itself. Atlanta – the book – began as an attempt to look back on the making of Aquemini. Over the last three years, Schmelling has photographed the city’s ever-shifting hip-hop landscape. His pictures of Atlanta artists, their fans and various up-and-comers reminded me of Robert Altman’s film, “Nashville:” full of intense beauty, grubby corners and players playing. Schmelling explains: “Music in Atlanta filters up through the strip clubs, local radio and roving parties. It’s a self-sufficient, regional scene that drives a huge part of American popular music and culture.”
There’s a quote on the first page of Atlanta from Andre 3000, where he’s talking about the day that Big Boi and he went to go see Rico Wade at a hair salon in a strip mall near Headland and Delowe in East Point. The story is legend in Atlanta – and in rap history – but it feels good to hear it straight from Andre: “When we met Rico from Organized Noize in front of his job–and Gipp from Goodie Mob had his truck out there and was playin’ a beat–Rico said, ‘Let me hear how y’all rhyme’…”
Atlanta is published by Chronicle Books, and Schmelling continues to expand the project on his site atlbook.com. There you’ll find a free mix-tape to go with the book, photo outtakes, posts about hip hop in Atlanta, short video clips, links to some of the artists’s myspace pages, unguided tours of the city, maps, tattoos and more. Michael Schmelling is also the author of Shut Up Truth and The Plan.
This review was written by one of Modern Ink’s talented contributing artists and writers, Sarah Martin. Sarah is an interdisciplinary artist, professor and the Director of Communications for the L.A.F. Project. She has been teaching photography and filmmaking since 2003 and is currently teaching photography and social practice at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Sarah received her MFA in Photography from Yale University in 2002 and her BA in Media Arts from the University of Tennessee in 2000.