From The Desk Of Over The Rhine: Photographer Michael Wilson

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Over The Rhine issued its debut album. The Ohio-based husband-and-wife duo of multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have marked the anniversary with new album The Long Surrender, which was produced by Joe Henry at his Garfield House home studio and features an assortment of musicians handpicked for the project by Henry, including Lucinda Williams. Though Detweiler and Bergquist had never worked with Henry or his assembled backing band before, The Long Surrender was finished in less than a week. The fan-funded, 13-track album was just released via OTR’s Great Speckled Dog Records, which the duo named after Elroy, their much-loved Great Dane who passed away last year. Detweiler and Bergquist will also be guest editing all week. Read our brand new Q&A with Detweiler.

Linford: I don’t know if you’ve heard of the work of photographer Michael Wilson, but if not, allow me to the make the introduction. Michael is a photographer who grew up in Cincinnati and decided to remain rooted there close to home, close to extended family, close to the stories he grew up with. He’s married to Marilyn, and together they raised three children, Henry, Polly and Sonny. Years ago Michael lovingly described his children to Karin and I more-or-less as follows (I don’t think they’ll mind):

“If Henry gets a pebble in his shoe, he will carefully and methodically analyze the situation: ‘What is the pebble made of? Where do pebbles come from? Why did the universe conspire in such a way that I should get a pebble in my shoe?’ If Polly gets a pebble in her shoe, Polly will walk around vaguely miserable for an extended period of time, unsure why she is not at peace with the world, contemplating the general tragedy and melancholy of life and translating that into her poems and paintings and introspective piano playing. If Sonny gets a pebble in her shoe, Sonny stops immediately, takes her shoe off, removes the pebble, throws it away and goes on being happy.”

Michael grew up loving music. I remember Michael’s father describing how intently Michael listened to records as a boy, sometimes with tears in his eyes. Michael seriously considered becoming a professional French-horn player but, in a whimsical moment of inspiration, took his savings and bought his brother a Martin guitar and himself a camera. Michael then began making pictures and studying photography at Northern Kentucky University. The two interests eventually merged when Michael began seeing his photographs appear on dozens and dozens of record covers. Michael has photographed a who’s-who of bands and songwriters including David Byrne, Emmylou Harris, Andy Warhol, B.B. King, Joe Henry, Loudon Wainwright III, far too many to name here. Michael makes a safe space in front of his camera for many who are downright uncomfortable with (or at least conflicted in regard to) the notion of publicity and somehow allows musicians to present themselves with confidence and grace.

Michael continues to generate personal work as well, often documenting in unforgettable ways the very zip code in which he lives. Those in the know find Michael’s photographs instantly recognizable, and I’ve noticed we all tend to see them eventually taking their rightful place alongside other icons including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Wynn Bullock, Mary Ellen Mark. I believe Michael has been a huge, if subtle, influence on many young musicians, not least of which, Karin and me. His photographs taught us something about songwriting, the way he can frame a small detail and make you see it as if for the first time. The way some of his photographs, at first blush, “miss the point” but in so doing awaken something much deeper than the obvious. And besides all that, he was the first person to ever play us a Tom Waits record, pointing out how earnest many of the songs were. I quickly realized I didn’t care if Tom’s ballads were earnest, because in that small Cincinnati apartment, it felt like we were listening to them in the rubble, on back streets, after the war.

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