Michael Schmelling, Rise & Fall

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Here Press (here). Softcover book with gold dust jacket, 142 x 211 mm, 224 pages, with 146 color photographs. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Ben Weaver Studio. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Before buying Michael Schmelling’s Rise & Fall, you’ll first need to look up the price. That’s a routine detail with most books, but Rise & Fall’s retail price changes daily according to supply and demand. Scanning a QR code inside the back cover retrieves the current figure. Just after publication in November the book was $35.25. In January it dipped below $7. As of this writing it will cost you $12.91. Perhaps the future course will shift after this review? A graph on the Here Press website tracks the fluctuating price as a function of time. Set against a dollar-green background, it resembles a stock chart, with the price line zigzagging according to shifting investor sentiment. In the bottom left corner is a button link: BUY NOW.

Rise & Fall is not variable nor valuable enough to be considered a speculative asset, but its subject certainly is. Bitcoin was barely a blip on the global radar in 2011 when Schmelling was assigned to shoot Bruce Wagner for Wired magazine. The cryptocurrency had been conceived two years prior by a mysterious Japanese developer named Satoshi Nakamoto. Wagner was among a slew of early promoters hyping Bitcoin across various platforms. He was the founding host of The Bitcoin Show on YouTube, where he proselytized the brave new world with missionary zeal. “It’s a huge movement,” he crowed in the Wired profile. “It’s almost like a religion.” Wagner made an early name for himself in the budding Bitcoin subculture, along with sizable earnings and several quotes in Wired’s exposé “The Rise And Fall of Bitcoin” (here) which ran with a small photo by Schmelling showing Wagner near the Hudson Eatery in Manhattan.

As it turned out, that single picture was one of hundreds Schmelling shot over the course of a few hours. He also photographed Wagner sitting in a director’s chair near a video camera, and standing around his office stuffed with show props. Wagner tried on suit jackets, held placards, and mugged in front of the restaurant. “It felt like an average editorial shoot,” recalls Schmelling in the introduction. The outtakes would’ve been forgotten if not for the subsequent rags-riches-rags saga of Bitcoin. On the date of the photo shoot in October 2011, one Bitcoin was worth $3.27. “Over the years,” Schmelling writes, “as the price and profile of Bitcoin continued to rise, the photos accrued some new weight of their own—as photographs often do.” In early 2022, Bitcoins peaked at around $47K apiece. As of this writing, one Bitcoin is worth about half that amount.

If Schmelling’s old throwaways were once penny stocks, they’ve since matured into respectable assets—at least in photobook terms. Rise & Fall comprises a portfolio of 146 pictures. Their shifting prospects mirror the fickle fates of Bitcoin, Bruce Wagner’s career, and speculative bubbles generally. All have seen highs and lows since 2009. For the sake of this book, time narrows to a few hours, and photographs are presented in a steady flow without judgement. Their through line is Bruce Wagner. He appears in every picture, and he is the only person depicted in the book. Schmelling captured him first from this vantage and then that one, in various rooms, croppings, outfits, and expressions.

Schmelling’s basic challenge—the dilemma with shooting many public figures—is that Wagner was always in performance mode. “He came across like an archetypical salesman,” Schmelling writes, “grinning and talkative, ready to make his pitch to anyone.” Wagner was on YouTube for hours each day in this period, and his waking persona leaned into the camera as a function of muscle memory. His best foot was always forward, his appearance well groomed, and his upbeat character in a continual state of screen readiness. Most of Rise & Fall shows Wagner with the same plastic grin mounted in place. With top button undone and hands gently clasped, he’d internalized every Dale Carnegie lesson. Even when his hands and eyes flitted about, it was to act out roles. A performer’s body parts called into service, fueled by fantastical possibilities. “I got obsessed and didn’t eat or sleep for five days,” Wagner says in the Wired piece. “It was bitcoin, bitcoin, bitcoin, like I was on crystal meth!”

The outtakes in book form feel somewhat calmer. It’s a view over the shoulder of a solid working pro. Schmelling only has a few hours at his disposal. Can he get that definitive portrait of Wagner, one that captures his essential nature? Or, barring that, at least something suitable for the magazine essay? Richard Avedon’s aphorism might apply: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” Schmelling zooms in repeatedly to crop Wagner’s face for several photos. Elsewhere the camera pans out again to show surroundings.

Indoors, outdoors, flash, available light..it doesn’t seem to matter. No shot can penetrate Wagner’s huckster facade. If Schmelling managed to capture a definitive portrait that day, it is not in this book. But Rise & Fall might render that a moot point. A mental image of Wagner’s moxie accrues through repetition, a man of Gumby-esque plasticity, able to radiate optimism when called upon any time or place.

The first several photos hint in this direction with canned shots in an office setting. A buoyant mood carries through the long middle pages. Wagner holds an “End The Fed” sign cheerfully, as if rooting for his kid’s team. Over the last third of the book Wagner poses by the Hudson Eatery. This is where the single Wired photo took place, along with dozens of outtakes.

The restaurant was not picked by chance. It was purported to be the first in Manhattan to take Bitcoin as currency. Wagner carefully prepared for the photo op with a printed sign reading “Bitcoin Accepted Here”. Once it was installed by the entry (with management’s permission), he induced Schmelling to shoot hundreds of permutations. Several dozen are included in the book. He stands near the sign, enters and exits the restaurant over and over, with sunglasses and without, always making sure the “Bitcoin Accepted Here” is visible and prominent. It’s a bravado performance, but hard to draw definitive conclusions. Will this restaurant be the first of an impending new wave? Will Bitcoin ever be widely accepted as valid currency? The prospects were uncertain in 2011 and they remain so. But Wagner seemed determined to solidify them through sheer will power.

Wagner’s strength of character comes through. But what sort of character was he? That’s less clear. The Bitcoin ride has been bumpy for Wagner, as it has for most investors. In 2015 he lost a substantial amount of money. The Bitcoin Show came to an end, and he’s kept a low profile since, at least until this book. Tucked in a shiny gold dust jacket, Rise & Fall universalizes the dogged spirit of perseverance required of any true believer. “We all probably have a Bitcoin story by now,” writes Schmelling, “how we bought some long ago, or know someone who bought in early and got rich, or maybe we bought some and sold it too soon. Or we heard about the guy who mined thousands of coins but then lost the key to his fortune. How we coulda, shoulda.” Mining old photo archives for gems might embody the same spirit.

As a photobook, Rise & Fall follows a minor tradition of serial portraiture. Julio Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness and KayLynn Deveney’s The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings also fleshed out characters through multiple photographs. Yurie Nagashima (reviewed here) and Karolina Joderko (reviewed here) have applied a similar strategy to selfies, not to mention Kim Kardashian’s Selfish.

Rise & Fall is in the same general ballpark, but this book’s uniformity and brevity set it apart. I can’t think of many other photobooks shot in one afternoon. Perhaps the closest analogy might be Andy Warhol’s 1960s screen tests, or his feature films like Poor Little Rich Girl, Sleep, or Blow Job. All pioneered and explored transcendence through ritualized documentation. If 1/60th of second cannot reveal much, perhaps extended repetition can better the odds? That’s the promise of Rise & Fall. Flip the pages quickly and it might morph by cell animation into a motion picture. But that’s an uncertain prospect, and exact results may vary.

Collector’s POV: Michael Schmelling does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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