While You Were Sleeping
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.
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.
Melman has incorporated these influences and concentrated them. What makes his collection so wonderful is that he has given us a portrait of a place that will be recognizable in some essential way to many of us, yet he's also shown it to be as strange and unfamiliar as any foreign country. In The Quiet Hours Melman is working exclusively in photography's purest periphery--that most universally foreign of countries, the middle of the night--and looking at things that the average person seldom sees. Because, for the 17 years that went into these photos, while most of the world was sleeping Melman was going to work.
Contrary to what much of the civilized world continues to insist, every hour is either morning, afternoon, or evening until the clock strikes midnight. And as a connoisseur of nights, I'd go so far as to say that true night doesn't properly commence until the bars close and the drunks straggle home to their beds. That's when every city and town in the country goes into virtual freeze-frame mode; pretty much everything pauses or grinds to a dead halt, and the effect is weirdly transforming. Everything appears to have been carved out of the darkness, and every glint and shadow looks locked down. The middle of the night, as Melman clearly understands, is the longest a city can hold a pose.
The night, then, represents the cleanest possible slate for a person deficient in attention. That's one of those weird contradictions that only insomniacs, therapy junkies, religious zealots, and photographers seem to understand: Everything is somehow much clearer--often appallingly so--in the quietest, darkest hours. Three a.m. represents the closest most cities can approach to being truly silent or dark anymore, and in even the most prosaic of Midwestern cities or small towns, what light remains at that hour--squashed by the gauzy black shroud of the sky--rivals that of even Paris. Melman provides all the evidence for that claim that anyone should need right out of the blocks in The Quiet Hours. His view of Minneapolis's St. Anthony Falls and Third Avenue Bridge, with a spectral cluster of Milling District elevators and silos looming in the distance like a cathedral beneath the arch of the bridge, and the fuzzed bubbles of street lamps trapped in the mist and reflected on the surface of the river, looks like no image of the city I've ever seen. In so many of Melman's photos, in fact, Minneapolis has never looked so old and romantic, so old world, so European.
And that city, stripped of virtually everything but its history--its river and bridges and mills and warehouses and railroad yards and old diners--that's the Minneapolis I love. And St. Paul, I should point out, looks every bit as beautiful as the Minneapolis of Melman's photos; in The Quiet Hours, in fact, the two cities really do, for the first time, look like twins you can't tell apart.
Melman likes to incorporate recurring elements in his compositions, mostly the sturdier stuff of visual metaphor: stairs, bridges, railroad tracks, and intersections. But wherever he has gone with his camera he has managed to find images that, taken together, amount to a virtual typological and topographical document of the night. From the naturally impressionistic filter of a low winter sky crouched over Minneapolis to the drowsy wash of bruised dawn light over the Duluth harbor; from empty, snow-swept streets to power plants looming like jack-o-lanterns in the darkness, the photos in The Quiet Hours capture again and again the paralyzed surrealism of the middle of the night anywhere in America.
One of the ironies of this collection, and the desolate and almost wholly abandoned world it reveals, is that we are continually told that the country is experiencing an epidemic of sleeplessness. In even the smallest towns there are convenience stores that are open all night. The internet is purportedly crammed through the wee hours with sleepless browsers, the chat rooms buzzing with inane, lonely conversation. The more pathetic and public versions of these conversations can, of course, be found on talk radio at all hours. There are also 24-hour hotlines where anonymous voices are standing by to listen to the lamentations of the most desperate and agonized insomniacs among us.
Less than five minutes from my house I can choose from a number of different shopping and dining options in the middle of the night. I can cash a check or purchase a money order, buy a pornographic video, get gas or wash my car, work out, and make copies. If I felt like venturing even further afield I could gamble all night at one of the noisy, over-illuminated, hyper-energized casinos that are popping up all over the country.
Yet whoever all these sleepless people are, and whatever they might be up to in the middle of the night, I can tell you conclusively that they're not out there messing up Mike Melman's photographs. And that's a good thing, because it means they're not messing up mine.
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