On a Saturday afternoon, a friend popped by my house to invite me to a book signing at Criminal Records in Little Five Points. Convincing me with a few of my favorite words: “dirty South”, “photography”, and “exploitative”, I decided to roll with him. After a brisk walk down Moreland, we arrived at our destination to check out Michael Schmelling’s new book Atlanta — a photography book with accompanying essays by Kelefah Sanneh and interviews by Will Welch.
Time has passed since I originally bought the book because I had to sit on what I was viewing. As you walk through it, you are confronted with bright, colorful photographs of African-American youths found throughout hidden parts of Atlanta. Every time I picked up the book I couldn’t decide whether it was an exploration of exploitative photography or a display of love for a side of the city that is never seen in art galleries. I decided it was a little of both.
Schmelling follows the same documentary format that I’ve seen from photographers like Terry Richardson and Nan Goldin. Both of whom use themes such as night life, youth, and snapshot photography to illustrate the beauty of American subcultures. Goldin, criticized for exploiting herself in her work, took a series of snapshots, documenting herself and those around her as victims of violence, drug abuse, and STDs, while Richardson, with his photographs of a nudist colony, porn stars, and common freaks on the street, became well known for having no fear in going out into the margins of society and shooting portraits of people living on the fringes.
Schmelling’s work uses a clean, straight forward, brightly colored aesthetic to investigate an otherwise dirty style of black culture developing out of Atlanta. Both of these factors, the crisp photographs and local subject matter, keep me moving through the book. The subjects he chose to shoot remind me of people that I grew up with and places that I’ve been throughout the Southeast. If his work appears to be exploitative, it’s probably because the subject matter isn’t familiar to most. Many have never heard of crunk, snap, and trap music. Let alone understand what a quarter water is and why the basement party still rules instead of visiting one of Atlanta’s many famous clubs. If you are seeking help in defining these terms, have no worries: The essays and interviews that accompany the images in the book give insight into how dirty South culture has developed and changed in the past 15 years, moving from underground to mainstream. Writers, like Kelefah Sanneh, have had a hand in aiding this movement. Originally a pop music critic for the New York Times before moving to the New Yorker, Kelefah Sanneh has been an asset in explaining the unfamiliar aspects of hip-hop. I’ve read a lot of his work over the years, and his writing has provided fuel for understanding a culture that has never had a mainstream voice until recently.
Schmelling ultimately invites his viewers to places that have aided in the mainstream reception of Atlanta’s music scene. This city has such a large hip-hop base because of hip-hop’s gradual movement from New York to Atlanta starting in 2001. The sounds that classify this city always start in the strip clubs and then move to college radio, before making it to mainstream. It is often noted, “If the song don’t jump in the club, it ain’t gon’ jump in the streets.” It seems simple to figure out until you see how saturated the music market has become in Atlanta. Schmelling takes his audience on a ride through the dirty South to show how an entire group of people can take where they come from, build a thriving car/music/style culture surrounding their location, and influence an entire generation of young Americans.
Now, what you really know about the dirty South? Ask Schmelling. He’s got a book devoted to the culture of my youth and I must say, he hit the nail on the head. But if you need more help, check out Atlanta’s own Goodie MOB and their album Soul Food. You’ll get all the details you need and possibly the inspiration to explore your own version of Atlanta’s dirty South.