Michael Schmelling

Bucket Rider Galery

In 2003, photographer Michael Schmelling began to accompany crews from the private hygiene task force Disaster Masters as they blitzed the homes of obsessive- compulsive hoarders in New York City and Yonkers with the aim of sorting through and reorganizing or disposing of mountains of accumulated trash. Sometimes invited in by the hoarders themselves, but also by loved ones, social workers, co-op boards, or landlords, Disaster Masters launches fast, immediate assaults on chronically overstuffed domestic environments, and offers counseling and aftercare. Schmelling photographed some of the places he cameacross, rooms filled with mounting piles of apparent rubbish that threatened to choke its owners, illustrating a problem that the Disaster Masters call “perma-clutter,” brought on by acute “disposophobia.”

But Schmelling is not an in-house documentary photographer. He avoids the before-and-after diptychs one might expect, concentrating instead on small, affecting vignettes. His work reveals hoarding to be a universal human impulse that can become literally suffocating in those cases in which a disinclination to edit has degenerated into a kind of mania. In none of these images is there much direct evidence of any overt health hazard—no rodent infestation, no rotting food—just piles and piles of stuff, a sedimentation of acquisition that the artist often seems to find more compelling than upsetting, and more open to interpretation than one might expect.

The impulse to wash and dry the plastic bags we discard every day, for example, as pictured in Untitled (hanging bags), 2003, could be that of a troubled individual who has lost the ability to recognize what should be relinquished; but it might also be the act of a particularly committed environmentalist. Schmelling allows for both readings, using his privileged position as semiofficial interloper (he also worked on some of the cleanup crews) to preserve the intimate details of another’s private idiosyncrasy. Sometimes his fellow employees appear, gloved and masked, but Schmelling never tells us how particular homes have been chosen for their intervention. The result is a slightly chilling air of authoritarian intrusion, the sense of an enforced makeover.

The sheer glut of detritus in Untitled (foot, mattress), 2003, is breathtaking in its variety and oddly vulnerable beneath the boot of authority. There’s pathos at work here, despite the fact that those who constructed these temples to salvage are physically absent from Schmelling’s shots. Temporarily evicted, they will later return to tidied-up addresses that they may not actually prefer. In some cases—Untitled (flowers), 2004, for example—the rooms in question look downright cozy, and seem no more suggestive of an uncontrolled acquisitive urge than, say, the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia, or the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. In some of his smaller photographs, Schmelling isolates details, illuminating pathetically preserved doll parts, old advertisements, and trashed audio cassettes—an inventory of cultural flotsam and jetsam.

Schmelling’s work prompts conflicting reactions: While it could be regarded as simple documentation of a hidden threat to public health, it also has an unquestionably voyeuristic aspect. Ultimately, though perhaps obliquely, Schmelling argues that there are some decisions that no one should have to justify, and that what you do with your own stuff should perhaps be one of them.

James Yood