Photographer Michael Schmelling’s most recent project was borne of his admiration for Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which created a palpable and rhythmic sense of the New South metropolis. Celebrity reeled him in, but as Schmelling began to explore the city’s growing music scene, it was the unsigned artists who really intrigued him, and it was these unknowns who inspired Atlanta: Hip-Hop and the South, a remarkable marriage of photojournalism, music, and art.
We are living in a golden age of the photography book, and like the best examples of the genre — standard bearers like Robert Frank’s The Americans, modern exemplars like Ed Templeton’s Deformer — the design of Atlanta is at least as important as the the photographs themselves. Schmelling’s previous book, the small press edition The Plan, documented the work of Disaster Masters, a company that cleared out New York-area homes of the kind that make Hoarders one of A&E’s biggest hits. Those photos were printed in black and white on newsprint and bound like a White Pages index (soon to be an obsolete format in itself), suitable to the density and disposability of its subject.
Chronicle Book’s Atlanta is a more ambitious and more handsome book, but thematic elements remain steadfastly home-grown. Sure, you see bling and bravado, bold women and big cars, tattoos and pit bulls; but you also see makeshift studios with egg-crate soundproofing, weather-beaten loudspeakers, hand-written lyrics and set-lists. Such details are the photographic descendants of Stephen Shore’s or William Eggleston, but in a very different culture.
Essays by New Yorker critic Kelefa Sanneh put the photos and the music scene in context — you can hear Sanneh and Schmelling talk about Atlanta on WNYC’s Soundcheck. An appendix features interviews with Atlanta hip-hop figures from the famous — Ludacris, Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi — to the less known. A download code is included for a mix tape of some of the unsigned artists featured in the book.