What makes a trombone player pick up a camera, a photographer pick up the violin, or someone compose for both symphony orchestra and also a camera? An informal poll of Casual Photophile contributing writers revealed that 25% of us are practicing musicians (It would be interesting to see if the statistic holds up in a sampling of the broader community). That high percentage makes the idea of the musician/photographer harder to ignore than the oft-repeated refrain of an ear-worm pop song.
Since CP staff are also writers, a question was put to the group: Share your thoughts on the relationship between the seemingly disparate practices of music and photography? Our responses are collected herein.
Are you a musician and photographer? We’d like to read your thoughts on the subject. What does it mean to you to be both a musician and a photographer? Leave those in the comments section.
It’s funny – around the same time I started taking photos, I started playing bass, both without too much thought. Fifteen years, a writing job at a photography website, a music degree and a promising career as a professional bassist later, I’m beginning to think I’m a bit obsessed.
But being obsessed is one thing – understanding that obsession is quite another. Not until the last few years have I come up with a good answer for either art form. But I think it has to do with the concept of time, and more specifically, timing.
In terms of playing bass, there’s a near mythical concept related to timing called “the pocket.” In its simplest terms, “the pocket” refers to the tiny space that any given note or rhythm occupies. The goal is simple – play a note at exactly the right time and you’re in the pocket.
Though it may sound simple, experienced players know that playing the pocket is its own art form. That’s because it’s not just about playing in time or playing the right rhythms, it’s about the way you play in time, the way you express a certain rhythm. It’s not just about knowing where the beat is – it’s about knowing when and where to push it, drag it, lighten it, or deepen its impact solely by playing a note in a different place in time. Do so, and you gain access to something truly beautiful, profound, and mysterious.
Photography, then, deals with much the same ideal. Photographers even have their own term for this phenomenon, “The Decisive Moment.” Learning when, exactly, to press the shutter button is its own art form. It’s not enough to simply “be there,” you have to time out where to place subjects in relation to each other, as well as to the foreground and background, judge lighting conditions and judge exposure, and be sensitive to whatever’s happening in human terms. Above all, photographers must be able to recognize the poetry in a scene and capture it at the right moment.
The reward? Learn to hit the pocket in all of its shapes, forms, and style and you gain something incredible – control over how you and your audience perceive and feel time itself. Learn to recognize and capture “The Decisive Moment” and you capture not only a point in time, but how that time felt. Both give shape to the shapeless, form to the formless, both make Something out of what could very well be Nothing.
This might all seem like a bunch of artsy-fartsy B-S, but I think it’s absolutely real. There’s a certain mystery to a well-timed Henri Cartier-Bresson or Gordon Parks photo, and I think it’s that same mystery that comprises Count Basie’s signature swing, Funkadelic’s impossibly deep funk, or Tatsuro Yamashita’s joyous, sun-filled groove. Whatever that mystery is, it’s certainly worthy of a lifetime’s obsession and pursuit, be it in music, photography, or anywhere else.
Having spent much of my adult life studying experimental music and sound, I am necessarily concerned with the many timescales at work within and without a piece of music. It was only until recently that, so taken with the operations of time, I would rarely find static visual art that truly resonated with me; little did I know that taking up film photography would supplement how I conceptualized my own music, and reality more generally.
Early on as photographers, we are taught the reciprocal rule: when shooting at a certain focal length, try to avoid shutter speeds that are slower than 1(focal length in mm), or else your images may be plagued with motion blur induced by your own hands. This was one of the first steps towards realizing the illusion of halting time, and that we as photographers are not so much freezing moments as we are gathering them. I had just recently learned how to construct memory buffers that grab 20 milliseconds of live audio in order to freeze or reverse the flow of time, but I did not expect to find such a complementary process in photography; when I worked out that the reciprocal rule for the beginner’s standard nifty fifty is 20 milliseconds, I knew I was on the right track.
I wish I could say that there was a technically rigorous synthesis of photography and composition to follow the trip to Alaska that started me down the road of semi-serious picture taking, but the connection is fairly tenuous so far. Whether one has influence over the other is not so important to me compared to the fundamental shift in my perception. The months after that summer were the busiest and most productive of my composition career, and the orchestral and chamber music I put out was unlike anything I had made before my time with a camera: droning undulating textures interrupted by imagined bird calls, and hyperpolyphonies of abstracted dreams competing with one another for space.
Nick Clayton – Jazz Photography
I was steeped in both music and photography from a young age courtesy of my father, who always had jazz on the radio, or on the car radio, usually on the way to jazz concerts. My first camera was a Pentax Spotmatic handed down to me by him, and my first job was doing macro photography in support of his work as a forensic engineer.
Individually, either music or photography would have been a gift to an introvert like myself, but in concert *pun* they have provided me with structured ways to engage the world with eyes open through the lens, or eyes closed from behind a musical instrument.
I tend to photograph like a jazz musician. I don’t control a scene or situation, I adapt to it and search for themes in the apparent chaos of it all. I would define mastery of both music and photography as the ability to find meaning where others may not, and reveal it to an audience. That’s the goal anyway.
Artist and musician Jean Michel Basquiat famously said that “Art is how we decorate space; Music is how we decorate time.” If you entertain modern theories of physics however, space and time are unified. I like to think this makes it possible to blur the line between the visual and aural.
Time in photography relates directly to shutter speed. Roy DeCarava, the first black photographer to receive the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship Grant in 1952, quipped that “In between that 1/15th of a second, there is a thickness.” He could not bear to “obliterate” a scene with flash, so he relied on ambient light and slow shutter speeds as he photographed jazz musicians in Harlem nightclubs. His style is evident in the album cover image for Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess, which is gently bathed in natural light and registers some blur that subtly implies the motion of a woman’s leg. Indeed, 1/15th does have enough weight to it that it is easily perceptible to the human ear, and enough depth that it could provide DeCarava with the means to execute his vision by recording a scene as he saw it, regardless of the limits imposed by contemporary lenses and emulsions.
Time in music is represented in the underlying beat, or pulse that is the foundation of a song. Time is held deftly by a musician in the space between each and every note, giving meaning to melody and decorating time as Basquiat described. Likewise, each and every mirror blackout of a photographer’s camera is a recording of time containing the very moments that construct our shared sense of history. Our snapshots are a record, and their sum makes up the stories of our lives. It is not a big leap for me to see (or hear) every click of a camera’s shutter as being analogous to the rhythmic tapping of the drummer’s ride cymbal, and for the world to then become a beautiful song.
At first glance, music and photography appeared to me either too easy or too difficult to usefully compare. The similarities seemed too plentiful and broad—what two art forms don’t relate?—or too obscure, too esoteric. I’m a thinker, but not a philosopher. I suspect categorical relationships between the two would be more accessible to somebody with, say, knowledge of neuroscience or deep music theory than to me, a much humbler explorer in lower echelons.
Upon reflection however, I do think there are similarities—beyond basic principles applicable across the motley family of artistic disciplines. Music, for instance, is intensely visual. A subject in a photograph occupies much the same role as a melody or theme in a piece of music. Both anchor the piece, leading us along lines of story through a landscape either literal or figurative.
And musical rhythm is not so different from visual rhythm. A progression of notes over a period of time is a fraternal twin to the layering of shapes, light, and dark that form a photographic image. The most successful photographs are almost always those that have a rhythm, giving the viewer’s eye a coherent path. Music is a play between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ objects—notes and the silence between. I believe it was Debussy who said that “Music is the space between the notes”; and negative space plays an equally important role in composing (aha) a photograph.
In both, there is momentum. And a very particular relation to time. I like thinking about the photographer’s frame as analogous to the musician’s beginning and ending notes. A boundary defines the piece. Out of the chaos of potential that is all possible musical notes and time signatures, all possible subjects and angles and focal lengths, harmony emerges by limitation: the choice of this note, not those; this 125th of a second, this light, this perspective. The power of either to evoke a mood or recall a certain part of the past is so strong that I often can’t listen to particular music or look at photographs from childhood unless I have prepared myself for the sort of chronological vertigo that accompanies it.
Why are so many musicians also photographers? Do photographers “hear” light? Do musicians “see” notes? Are we all just trying to record wonderful and ephemeral moments that we don’t want to lose? I guess I don’t have a good answer. But I’m happy about it, because it seems such an enrichment to both fields. (Plus, musicians are fun to photograph!)
Are you a musician/photographer? Do you have thoughts on this? Let us know in the comments below.
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