What makes a life? Sure our lives — and relationships — may be punctuated by extraordinary experiences, but there hundreds of thousands more quiet and ordinary moments in between. And that is where photographer Joe Schmelzer does his best work. Fellow artist Cliff Benjamin has noted Schmelzer’s “generic” settings that “could be anyone’s vacation — but are something more.” And indeed his images are “lush meditations on the wonder of ordinary life.” In his collection, Life With Nick, Schmelzer shares ten years of images capturing intimate moments with his partner, and muse.
Here Schmelzer shares 25 of those photos and tells us more about his work and life with Nick Berry.
Your bio says that you might have taken an entirely different career path had it not been for Muhammad Ali. Can you tell our readers the story behind that?
Well my father had a collection of Yousuf Karsh portrait photographs — of many different people — all over the house. Somehow Muhammad Ali ended up hanging in my bedroom. So, I wouldn’t say that it was all about Muhammad for me, but the idea of a career making photographs was entered early into my mind.
Tell us about finding the extraordinary in mundane moments. Is that something that other people can cultivate? It feels like a great mindset to traveling as well.
I think this is something that everyone can work on for sure. There is also something “beautiful” around you. I think process is to find a way to bring that out of the “small moments” and really try to appreciate and admire every moment. I think many people long for the “perfect or most magical”— when maybe that moment is actually right in front of them already. I always hear things like “How do I take the perfect sunset pic?” or things like that. My answer always seems to be “You don’t” — some moments are meant to actually be experienced, and not photographed. I think these experiences are what perhaps can make you take better photographs in the future. My photographs then become a combination of maybe some “magical” moments (although they all are magical to me) — and these “quieter” moments — these moments are what make up the bulk of your life. It is then a process both internally and with a camera to find the solution to telling these stories of the “everyday moments.”
You’ve been with Nick for over a decade, how many images did you have to sort through to narrow down what to put in the book?
Well, I am still trying to find the best way to deal with the book situation. I have been in some talks, but I currently don’t have a publisher, or have decided to self—publish (hint, hint, anyone interest?). But, yes, the process of choosing those images will prove to be very difficult. As you mentioned, it has been over a decade, I have thousands and thousands of images. Definitely some favorites, and certainly some that have never been seen before. The process of going back and looking at images that I may have missed before, or had a different idea in the past, but now an old image speaks to me. I think my favorite part, is seeing the relationship over time, and remembering all the things that were happening at certain situations and travels. And since this project is ongoing and continually growing, there will always be choices to make.
Tell me about bacon. I’m curious about it as subject matter. Do you take pictures of bacon in other areas or just at home? Do you take bacon out to Palm Springs and see if it will fry on the street?
Ha. Well, there is no specific fascination with bacon, other than it is delicious. The original “Nick with Bacon” was taken many years ago, something like 2012. The photo was never planned, we honestly were making breakfast at our friends house in Palm Springs. I just happened to take a picture, which for some reason has become rather iconic of my work. All sorts of stories seem to have been made up about the situation and photo. Again, I never like to give away too much. So, therefore if the viewer has a wild imagination, and my photo created some story in their mind, then I guess I did my job well.
Can you explain how your gallery exhibitions are puzzle-like, autobiographical narratives?
Well, that is an interesting question. I guess I would say, that I never like to give away too much. I don’t like to beat viewers over the head with the obvious. I think I like to leave something for the viewer to figure out. I often call them “nonlinear” narratives. There isn’t a specific story, but when presented all together — there is definitely information to de-code from them.
Is photographing while traveling a different experience for you than while at home?
Well, I do take many photographs at home as well. As you can see in the work for sure. But, there is something different for sure. At home, I am always taking photographs for my “work” as well. But while travelling (mostly for vacation) my focus is definitely shifted. And again, my connection to Nick is different, as much of the baggage of “everyday work life” is not weighing us down. I don’t plan these photographs. Sometimes lots of pictures are taken, and sometimes the experience is more important than the photograph. Nothing is forced, which is what I feel keep the images as authentic as they can be. For me, they are almost a visual diary. I remember everything about the moments we made them and the experience we were having.
What draws you back to Hawaii repeatedly?
I have always loved Hawaii, and many years ago I took Nick for the first time. He fell in love as well. Over the last decade, we have pretty much gone over and over, and everytime for longer and longer. We have settled on an area of the North Shore of O’ahu, that is our absolute favorite, and also have been actively searching for a second home there (maybe eventually full-time). I guess I would just call it our “happy place.”
We have been working the grind of the “industry” in Los Angeles for many, many years. I guess personally I always seem to run on a stress level of about 14, lol. But, in Hawaii, there is an energy that I cannot explain, if you let it in. Somehow, we have connected with that energy. The island has taught me what the word “relax” means. It has slowed me down. It has taught me to appreciate even more the “everyday moments.” And, through that I believe it has brought Nick and I closer together. It is hard to put into words the feeling, but all I do know is that I love that feeling. (plus we have taken some epic photos there as well)