"We all probably have a Bitcoin story by now—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. My Bitcoin story is..."
(From the introduction by Michael Schmelling)
Though the idea of a decentralised, universal digital currency had long been the dream of cryptographers since at least the early 1980s, it wasn’t until 2009 that the now famous (yet presumably pseudonymous) developer Satoshi Nakamoto mined the first 50 Bitcoins. Not long after, Nakamoto withdrew from the community he'd created, went silent, and then disappeared entirely.
Cryptocurrencies more or less went mainstream in 2022 with celebrity endorsed Super Bowl ads, but just ten years prior, Bitcoin only thrived on the fringes of the internet. If you’d heard about Bitcoin in that era at all, it was likely in relation to the dark web blackmarket site Silk Road, or WikiLeaks. It was in these early days of Bitcoin — concurrently the waning days of print media — that Michael Schmelling was hired to photograph a man named Bruce Wagner. Wagner was an early proselytiser for Bitcoin and hosted a show on YouTube called The Bitcoin Show.
On a sunny Autumn day in New York City, with the price of Bitcoin hovering around $3.25 per coin, Schmelling photographed Wagner at an ad-hoc television studio in Midtown, and then outside the first restaurant in the city to accept Bitcoin as payment. Wagner seemed a true salesman, grinning and talkative, extolling the virtues of Bitcoin. After the shoot was over, he told Schmelling to take whatever fee he was making that day and spend it all on Bitcoin.
There didn't appear to be anything remarkable about this editorial assignment at the time, but over the years, as the price of Bitcoin rose, the photographs began to gather weight, as photographs often do.