On the Relationship Between Music and Photography

On the Relationship Between Music and Photography

2200 1467 Nick Clayton

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.

Josh Solomon

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.

Stephen Hennessy

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.

Leah Damgaard-Hansen

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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Nick Clayton

Nick Clayton is an educator, musician, environmental advocate and photographer living in the Blue Mountains of Ontario, Canada with his wife and their three children. He can be found on Instagram & Twitter as @nicknaclayton

All stories by:Nick Clayton
  • Christopher Bruno April 5, 2021 at 11:10 am

    It is perhaps a less introspective answer than those of the staff, but a part of the harmony between music and photography for me is the way they both embody the dichotomous relationships between control and abandon, between introversion and extroversion. To practice both music and photography requires a great initial investment of one’s self into the technical fundamentals of the craft, which must then be internalized enough to be made subservient to the variables of the moment: a musician performing in a group must listen and respond sympathetically to the other musicians and to the audience, just as a photographer is in concert with the light and the movement of his or her subject. When I look through my viewfinder I feel as though I am both retreating into myself and more acutely engaging with my surroundings; when I play with other musicians, I feel a similar oneness.

  • Margaret Wourke-Bites April 5, 2021 at 6:47 pm

    Once upon a time I kept a metronome above the darkroom sink (an homage to Ansel) nothing in my results suggested it was anything but an eccentricity or possibly an improvisation for AA, I much preferred music playback and choreographing the processing routine like dance-steps. I’ve been playing music for at least as long as I have been making photographs and while I see (pun unintended) certain parallels in counterpoint and visual composition, I know that playing difficult music compositions is way more difficult than making a good or even great photograph. Plus, you can play the same music over and over again and will probably (if played well) be much better received than intentionally making the same photograph. The more I think about it the more differences I can think of. . .some of the most satisfying and stimulating music I listen to is performed in ensembles or orchestras, is there a photographic equivalent? I suppose the negative can be “the score” but its always a solo performance.

  • Markus Larjomaa April 6, 2021 at 4:55 am

    I am a trombone player and I’ve picked up way too many cameras ;). I can’t really remember what made me to start my photography hobby, although it was just about four years ago. I had never really been interested in photography at all until I “found” film. Or perhaps it was the cameras? Older cameras, purely mechanical, with only the minimum of controls and absolutely no extra features. Just like a trombone :). A viewfinder and control over focus, aperture and shutter speed, that’s all I need. The existence of a self-timer doesn’t bother me, but I wish I could make flash sync contacts disappear from my cameras. I hate hot shoes with a passion. Especially on SLRs. On rangefinders they are OK, sometimes I might need to use an accessory viewfinder. Simplicity is key, also in (my) music.

    In the beginning of my photography hobby I thought I would want to make loads of concert photos. It turned out I was completely wrong the very first time I took a camera to a concert. I realised that I far rather live through the whole concert experience than document it. I was already in the habit of turning my phone off (as in power off, not just silent mode) whenever I attended a concert or gig or even when visiting museums and galleries. So why would I suddenly want to interrupt my experiencing the art by snapping photos?

    The answer to “why I make photos?” has grown with my practice. I actually don’t really know why I want to make photos. To document my life? Well, yes. To provide my friends and family with memories that last? Sure. To commit to film and darkroom means that there’s much more thought behind each finished photo (a print, whether it’s a hand-made silver gelatin print or Blurb book) than in those millions of smartphone snapshots shared in WhatsApp groups. I believe that alone is enough reason, I feel no need to be recognised widely as a photographer let alone to build a following in social media. 99,9% of my photography lives as prints only (actually, I think about 99,99% of my photography lives as negatives only, if you don’t count contact sheets as prints).

    During this pandemic my subject matter has naturally been mostly just family life and whatever interesting I migh spot during my daily walks around the neighborhood, but “normally” I carry at least one camera almost everywhere. I don’t shoot during performance, but I like to capture musicians’ lives backstage, in the tour bus, coffee breaks on rehearsal days and studio sessions…

    My photographic style? Don’t know if I’ve really developed one yet. But certain guidelines surely steer me to a certain direction… I never use flash. I hardly ever do still lifes except maybe for film or equipment testing purposes. I prefer candids over poses and wrinkles over makeup 🙂

    If I’m no really sure about why I make photos, I know exactly why I make them the way I do. I’m a strong advocate of “analog lifestyle”. I prefer print media over online news service, I do my time management on my handwritten calendar/journal, I like to write music with pen and paper, I only shoot film, I like vinyl and tape, tolerate CDs and utterly hate streaming services. It doesn’t come down to the stupid old “which one sounds/looks better, digital or analog” question, for me the question is philosophical. Yes, I do like the “film look” and the “vinyl sound” and “tape sound”, but I doubt I would spot the difference between the real thing and a well excecuted digital emulation in a blindfold test. To me, the most important aspect is that analog signal is continuous, whereas digital is not. Digital comprises of pixels or samples, and although I can’t perceive those individual pixels or samples, the philosophical difference makes all the difference to me. Further: digital is “signal only”, but with analog the noise and the medium itself is part of the signal. I embrace tape hiss (though the high-end studio reel-to-reel kind of tape hiss rather than cheap compact cassette tape hiss…) just as much as I embrace the silver grain, although some folks might consider these as defects. Even further: most classic “tape era” recordings contain loads of interesting “non-signal” sounds that are usually simply cleaned away from digital recordings. Studio chatter somewhere in the background… a squeak of a piano chair… cross-talk on tape… I could go on and one but I think my comment here is already too long.

    Finally I would like to give some book recommendations that help explain why I think about photography, music and life the way I do:

    W.A. Mathieu – The Listening Book / The Musical Life / Bridge of Waves (and if you REALLY want to dig deep, Harmonic Experience)

    Damon Krukowski – The New Analog (also his great podcast Ways of Hearing!)

    Sam Burtis – Time, Balance And Connections, A Universal Theory of Brass Relativity (although this is a trombone method book, the introductory part is highly recommended reading to ALL musicians)

    Efrain Toro – From Linear to Harmonic (and many other books… they may seem more like cajon method books, but the theory/philosophy is the same as Burtis’s, or Mathieu’s, or countless other wise people I haven’t yet heard of)

    Oh, and I’d like to thank Casual Photophile for all your work. This website and Daniel Milnor’s stuff are the only photography resources online I’ll ever need.

    • A fellow trombonist! It is such a frustratingly elegant and simple instrument, and I share your feelings about superfluous features on cameras. Coincidence? Perhaps not… I appreciate your thoughtful insights on the philosophical considerations that underpin our experiences. To be into analog, for example, is to consider the implications of process in the product, and clearly that matters. Thanks for reading!

  • I started playing violin in 5th grade, right around the time I also became interested in photography. I’m now 37 years old and have dabbled in everything from violin to harmonica to guitar. For the past year, I’ve been fulfilling the life-long dream of playing bass. (I started on violin because I had a free violin. Bass has always been my first love). I still shoot film, both 35mm and medium format. To me, both art forms are about creation and transformation. To the untrained eye, sheet music is just a collection of funny looking dots on a series of horizontal lines. Likewise, a photographer sees, physically speaking, a series of wavelengths/photons that have no deeper meaning than what is visible.

    Utilizing their talents, a musician will take that piece of sheet music and transform it into an audible artwork. When that musician plays from the heart, and adds his unique experiences and feelings to the piece, then the magic occurs and something greater than the sum of its parts springs into existence.

    Our intrepid photographer does much the same thing. The scene she sees is influenced by her unique experiences with the world, and as she composes her image, those feelings and experiences are transferred to the film, and the image is given meaning.

    The best photographs, like the best music, are inspired by something. Good photographers and musicians will show you that inspiration through their art…

    • I’m certain you can relate to CP’s Josh Solomon, the bass player/photographer/writer who contributed to this piece. Your comment finds the connections between disciplines, idioms, senses, and our inner and outer worlds. I think that musicians do take an abstract visual language (sheet music) and interpret it as fingerings and sound. This collision of intellect, technique, imagination, and expression encourages connections that make us “whole-brained”. Perhaps we understand things, especially connections between things, better than most. Thank you for your thoughts, and happy shooting / slapping (the bass).

  • I am not a musician except in my regrets (gave up the French horn in eighth grade because it wasn’t cool – what an idiot!). But it was also about that time that I got my first camera – maybe music and photography were somehow satisfying the same need for creativity. Every darkroom photographer I’ve known needs the right music for developing and printing, but the “right” music is different for each person (me – usually Miles or ‘trane or one of the Vienna Two). Music and photography is the perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

    • It’s never too late to pick up an instrument! Perhaps this time you should follow in the footsteps of Miles and Coltrane and try trumpet or tenor sax. French Horn is, without doubt, the most difficult wind instrument to pitch accurately. Many have picked up F Horn, and very few persevere 😉 Thanks for reading!

  • Another overlapping area of interest I’ve notice. First…I have a 40 year history in photography…15 years as a shooter followed by 25 years in sales. Not counter sales but industrial sales to print media (and now video), law enforcement and military. I’ve found it interesting how many photographers I deal with are also into firearms…not so much the hunting aspect but target shooting. Don’t know if in a way it is also a visual medium…or that it’s a hardware thing…but I’ve been surprised at the number of my clients are sport shooters.

  • You know, I think you’re onto something! The term “shooting” applies to both, I live rurally, and I’ve even made that comparison myself when wandering in the woods with my camera. Photography can be its own form of hunting that likely uses the same instincts, with very different outcomes, of course.

  • It’s interesting how so many words can be applied to both music and photography…..
    Composition, Tone, Balance, Timing, Culture, Harmony, Subject, Narrative, Dedication, Artistry, Technical, Analogue, Digital, Retro, Avant-garde, Experimental, Expressive, Transcendent, Contrast, Vibrant, Somber, Darkness, lightness…
    We’re expressing the human condition in different mediums.
    David Wignall, photographer and bass player.

  • Imrana Djibrine Mainassara November 24, 2023 at 11:39 am

    This is undoubtedly the most sensical, methodical, systemic, and best breakdown of the relationship between Photography and Music. Even though it is from your very own perception and experience, it still underlines a very foundational description that is digestible to most, if not every artist/abstract thinkers. Thank you, I am now confidently reassured of my inherent and dire passion for both Photography and Music and why I cannot separate my love of their relationship.

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Nick Clayton

Nick Clayton is an educator, musician, environmental advocate and photographer living in the Blue Mountains of Ontario, Canada with his wife and their three children. He can be found on Instagram & Twitter as @nicknaclayton

All stories by:Nick Clayton