While You Were Sleeping

Mike Melman's photographs take us to that most foreign of countries: the middle of the night

 I've been trying for years to fine-tune a soundtrack for The Quiet Hours, Mike Melman's extraordinary new collection of nocturnal photographs. I began the project, in fact, long before I ever heard of Melman or his work. Maybe that's because I spend so much time driving around in the middle of the night, exploring the territory of these images. And what now passes for silence in America--the distant surf and over-hum of the city--generally makes me uneasy. Or maybe it's because there's something so richly and classically cinematic about Melman's work. Whatever the reason, though, I'm prepared to say that The Quiet Hours is a book that almost demands a soundtrack.

I'm not there yet, but I feel like I'm getting closer all the time, and I know that when I do eventually nail this particular mix-tape down it will have to include the beautiful, disconsolate muddle of Big Stars' "Kangaroo," Pere Ubu's "Heart of Darkness," George Crumb's "Black Angels," Rachmaninoff's Vespers, the spaghetti dub of Labradford, Roscoe Mitchell's Sound, Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," some scratchy old hillbilly 78s that sound like radio transmissions from the moon, Thomas Tallis's "Spem in Alium," Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, the dying of Wagner's Isolde, some of Ben Webster at his wooziest, something from Thelonious Monk and Tom Waits and, well, a whole lot more. Like I said, I'm not there yet. Something's got to be done, though, because I don't think I can bear the silence that I sense coiled and rattling from every one of Melman's photos, and without some soundtrack, 3:00 a.m. sounds like nothing so much as the waiting room outside God's office.

I'm not going to beat around the bush--well, okay, it's already too late for that. But let me at least acknowledge up front that The Quiet Hours is the most personally evocative collection of photographs I've spent time with in years. And I should say as well that I spend a lot of time with beautiful collections of photographs, and also that I've spent hours hunched over the pages of this book, slowly turning its pages in my lap, staring into Melman's gorgeous black-and-white images.

Mike Melman

The Quiet Hours features 70 photos mostly taken around Minnesota in the middle of the night or in the gauzy fish-belly-gray first light of morning. These are images of beautiful desolation, the territory of literal film noir, wholly devoid of people or even automobiles. For the most part they are winter shots, and are marked by the chiaroscuro of that season's limited palette of light and darkness--variations of grays and blacks, essentially, with ineffectual intrusions of street lamps. In the haunting interior scenes--a violin maker's studio, a shoe repair shop, a kosher butcher, a lunch counter, Sinclair Lewis's old bedroom--the crepuscular gloom is broken by floating frames and angles of eerie light.

I'd ask you to forgive my presumption--I have absolutely no gift for photography--but in my frequent hypnagogic voyages around town (this town, these towns, other towns) these are the photographs I've seen, the photos I have, in effect, taken. Because I'm prepared to swear that I've had these pictures in a developing tray in my head for years, and, in one particularly stunning instance, for as long as I can remember.

The photo that adorns the cover of The Quiet Hours is of a little meat market and grocery in my hometown of Austin. Knauer's Market is one of my favorite places in the world, and Melman's photograph captures everything I love about it: its timelessness, its status as a repository of a lifetime of personal memories, and its survival in a climate of encroaching strip malls and 24-hour monuments to the mega. Melman's Knauer's, isolated and framed by an empty street and an expanse of black sky, is also eerily elegiac; it has the quality of an acutely nostalgic dream.

You could argue that the most painful sort of nostalgia is for something that is not yet gone, and time and again Melman's photos elicit exactly that pinch of poignant regret mixed with longing and wonder. Longing for a world that's gone and wonder that part of it still somehow survives. The Quiet Hours documents the remains of the Midwest's old-school industrial past, and also the surviving reminders of the rapidly fading character of its small towns. But though these are images of what remains, they are also, for the most part, not yet ruins, an important distinction that allows for some small comfort as well as a wallop of shame. Some of the places in Melman's photographs are clearly abandoned, and they all look abandoned. But most of them are still out there, hidden away in the out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of our cities and small towns. The sad undertow that runs through so many of these pictures is the realization that the things we're looking at are disappearing right before our eyes.

 

The most obvious of a great photographer's gifts is the ability to really look at things, and to reveal qualities and characteristics that we never noticed were there. A photographer like Melman also knows how to look around, around himself but also around things in general. In this regard he has plenty of forebears, as Bill Holm points out in the book's introduction. The photographer acknowledges as much in his own preface as well. Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper are only the most obvious, but there are also images here that recall the dark visions of Robert Frank and Roy DeCarava, the industrial interiors of Lewis Hine, and the working-class Pittsburgh of W. Eugene Smith.

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