Music and Photography?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by mikemorrell, Nov 29, 2018.

  1. This is a follow-up thread to a discussion on the Point of Departure thread. The discussion was about the time difference between listening to music and viewing a photo. Still, both music and photos share things like composition, color, harmonies and contrasts, rhythms, expressiveness, etc. Both music and photography can be expansive, full of life or more subdued, even minimalist. So I wonder:

    - what (if any) analogies you see between music and photography?
    - whether you think these analogies (could) inspire your photography?
    - what (if any) analogies you see between learning, practicing and performing on a musical instrument and a 'photographic instrument'?
    - whether you have any good examples (musical or photographic) to share that illustrate any analogies you see

    There might be a serious side to this discussion but it might just be fun to share some stuff:)
  2. First . . . I would say that there is clearly a link between the creative aspects of photography and music. Many, from Ansel Adams to myself (see how I put myself in the same sentence with Ansel Adams!) have done both well and creatively. I started photography almost 45 years ago. Just a few years before I started playing guitar.

    It's more difficult to define the link between the two. Both involve communicating things that, at first, only exist in your mind. In music, this is easy to see. In photography you need to realize that the scene in front of you isn't a photograph until you decide what to include, what to leave out and how the remainder should be seen. Adams described the negative (or the digital file had he survived a few more years) as the musical score and the print as the performance. His "performances" of his "scores" changed much over the years. The printing of Hernandez slowly changed from a streaked, dark grey sky to a uniform, jet black sky, over the years that he printed it. The same often happens with musical artists who change the style of their early songs as they age. I seriously doubt that the Rolling Stones will perform "Let's Spend the Night Together", on their new 2019 tour, the same way that they did when they were doing it in clubs in 1965.

    My father was a musician, a very good rock-n-roll guitarist in the 50's, 60's and 70's. He still plays. He was also an avid photographer in the early 1960's. He taught me something about music when I was a teen that I have applied to my photography. He taught me to never let anyone hear me or my band practice. If friends come over to watch the band practice, perform for them. He applied this to my photography when I started. He said, "If you want people to think that you are a good photographer, don't show them your bad pictures." This has worked for me both musically and photographically for 45 years now.
  3. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Well, completely "non philosophical", I am so unmusical that the music teacher in grade school told me to lip synch in the Christmas Chorus. In the '60' s when guitars were a fool proof girl magnet, Got a decent one, put in a good bit of effort , and after 6 months or so, sold it. I do love music and play it daily across a broad spectrum of genres. I like to think I have been more successful with photography over all these decades than with music. In my case, the connections may be a bit obscure.
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  4. Abstraction.

    Music is often referred to as the most abstract of the arts. It’s generally the least literal and narrative art form, program music notwithstanding.

    Though I consider the content, narrative, and story-telling of photos important, the way the story interacts with the more abstract qualities is also significant. Color, tonality, texture, form, quality of light, tension, etc. are all more abstract sides of photos and help shape the meanings, feelings, and content of the photo.

    One of my piano instructors taught me, by exposing me to opera, about the importance of breath and how good legato piano playing, which is foundational, ought to be modeled on the human voice and its breathing and ability to seamlessly move from note to note. I think photos have a similar quality especially in terms of gradations, which can play such a vital role.

    Quite a while back, I started a Philosophy of Photography thread, in a prior incarnation, called “Performance.” Here’s a few lines from my opening post.
    The eye is led around a photo. It can be slowed down in different areas of the photo like a musical rubato. There can be more jarring staccato notes in a photo or more fluid legato notes. Visual patterns have a rhythm. There can appear to be melodies and accompaniments in photos, subjects and backgrounds.

    Music and photograph are very different from each other, IMO, with many significant similarities.
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  5. I was intrigued by this sentence. Don't you think its the other way around, i,e, Color, tonality, texture, light quality (not including tension) are the physical sides of a photo that shape the abstract sides like meanings, feelings etc, by their effect on our psyche. I do understand your use of the word abstract in relation to 'abstract art' when you refer to color, tonality, form etc, but compared to things like meaning or feeling, I think the former are less abstract than the latter.

    Thinking about the analogy between music and photos, I can only comment on the act of viewing and listening, since I don't play music. While viewing some photos, the moment I see a synergy between the different elements of a scene, it raises in my mind the same feeling of listening to symphony orchestra, when the allegro starts playing after a hiatus. A dark night scene may have feelings similar to a nocturnal piece, etc. There are many other similarities that I feel and I wish I could talk about them. However, I am not familiar with many terminologies in classical music, and I am sure there are others who feel the same way.

    Its my feeling that many analogies are formed in our brain bypassing the language and speech center, so there may not be words to describe them, although that doesn't make them mystical or supernatural. Thats just how the brain works, by forming connections between neurons. We may feel a lot of connection between different forms of art and other experiences, a fraction of which we may be able to communicate through language.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2018
  6. Interesting!

    I was thinking of story, content, narrative and meaning as the more literal aspects of photos, much like clear subjects and recognizable objects form the basis of representational painting. Abstract painting, on the other hand, often eliminates those literal subjects and objects in favor of more “pure” elements such as color, tonality, shape, texture, etc.

    Though I agree with you that shape and color are more tangible than meaning and feeling, I also think they are more abstract than the subjects and objects that are often at the core of photographic meaning and feeling.
  7. I think I am more on the same page with you now. However my view is that, things like color, texture or form are not by themselves abstract. Its their effect. In a regular photo, their effect is more relatable to a physical world such as story, content or message/meaning, which in turn can create a certain mood (which can be abstract). In an abstract photo, their effect is less relatable to the physical world as they appeal directly to the emotional field of our mind.

    So, in a sense, colors, forms, textures in a photo can be treated as abstract (although I think I am referring to their perception, not the things themselves) without any attachment to physical meaning or reality, same as the emulsion grains making up those textures etc are abstract by themselves, when not seen as collectively producing the macro features like textures etc. May be the concept of abstract is better understood when viewed in relation to a reference, A in reference to B, where inability to relate A to B renders A abstract. i.e. emulsion grains in reference to forms, colors, textures, these in reference to story, narration, meaning, then these in relation to mood, feelings. A sociopath might find the experience of a narration or story abstract, since he cannot relate them to an emotion or empathy. Well, I may be going ahead of myself, but wanted to note down my thoughts before I forget, even if they may be half baked.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2018
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  8. I was using "abstract" relative to art in what I was thinking of as a pretty basic and simple way.

    From the dictionary ... "abstract art" entry
    I do think of texture, color, and form as abstract in themselves, especially in an art context. At the same time, I agree with you that their effects tend also to be more abstract as well.

    In any case, I do think music is the most abstract of the arts and I think all art functions on many abstract levels, so music can provide great insights into the other arts and the ways in which they use abstraction, even in more representational renderings. We tend to think of abstract photography as one thing and representational photography as another. When we approach representational photography as well with an eye toward and consciousness of the abstract, I think we gain something. Since I do think music is the most abstract of the arts and its terminology follows that, using musical terms to think about and describe photos can be an interesting way to approach them.
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  9. By the way, here's another definition that doesn't rely on "effect" for more clarity of how I'm using these terms.
    It's probably more precise to say the art is abstract due to the reliance on color, shape, etc. and the lack of representational subject matter, though I do think of color, texture and shape as more abstract than vase, face and street.
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  10. Yes, I agree. Its probably superfluous to use 'effect', when referring to the colors, forms etc. I still think though, the concept of abstract is context dependent or makes sense in relation to the absence of a specific reference.

    To me, music without lyrics can be abstract, but songs with words etc are less so, because songs often describe a narration, someone's life story etc, quite vividly at times. I agree, the notes, rhythms etc in music can be equivalent to colors, forms in abstract visual art in their character and appeal.
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  11. I know what you mean and agree that songs are less abstract than a lot of classical music or jazz, however there's also the fact that a song is actually made up of lyrics and music. Yes, the lyrics and music go together like a hand and glove or, as the great lyricist Sammy Cahn put it, like a horse and carriage. But the horse and carriage part I would maintain is supported by the music, whose melody does seem totally appropriate to the meaning of the words, but wouldn't necessarily suggest that specific and literal a meaning without the words. Now, we often do impart meaning to music ... sad, lonely, uplifting, etc. but I still think the music itself is the most abstract of the arts at the same time as it can provide lessons in how abstraction works and how symbols operate on our emotions and how sadness gets infused into a string of notes or a scene of something that's not necessarily a funeral. How do we make a landscape photo suggest sadness, assuming no one's crying in the distance, etc.? What are the gestures or facial expressions or the kind of lighting that suggest exuberance? How do we visually hint at intimacy even when out of the bedroom or boudoir?
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  12. Both are about art and culture. Both have rhythm, tonality, mood, composition.
    I studied at a music school for 7 years since 7 to 14 (piano class). Mastering a piano is considered to be more challenging and difficult task by me than mastering a camera. (I still remember harmony and chords and play by ear). That's why there are exorbitant numbers of photographers now, but much fewer good pianists. Analogies - yes. Practice makes perfect.
    And.... there might be a close correlation between photos a human creates and music (and the genres) he listens to.
    When I process and edit photos I always listen to music. Some music often correlates to some photographic stuff.
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  13. I like and agree with your comment, @ruslan and especially this one :):

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  14. A very perceptive and educational comment IHMO, @The Shadow. I especially like the lines "The eye is led around a photo. It can be slowed down in different areas of the photo like a musical rubato. There can be more jarring staccato notes in a photo or more fluid legato notes. Visual patterns have a rhythm. There can appear to be melodies and accompaniments in photos, subjects and backgrounds."

    I'll definitely look up your previous post on "performance".

  15. You know, I wondered about this when I read it, so I'll throw my thoughts out there mostly as a question to consider.

    Is comparing the number of photographers to the number of good pianists the thing that will tell us something? I'm not sure there aren't similar numbers of accomplished photographers who reach a certain level and accomplished pianists who reach that same level. Probably the numbers are less these days, but when I was a kid growing up in the 50s-60s most every family had at least one kid who took piano lessons and could play Für Elise somewhat convincingly if a little haltingly. Probably more kids could do this than took pictures in those days. Now, times have changed and probably not as many kids are taking piano lessons at a young age and pretty much every kid has access to some sort of camera with which they take pictures.

    Now, without getting too distracted by a discussion of what exactly makes a photographer, we can generally recognize the difference between a kid who knows how to take a picture with her cell phone or even an adult who considers herself to have mastered her camera and Edward Weston or Dorothea Lange. Likewise, we can recognize the difference between all those kids playing Bach's simpler two-part inventions and Van Cliburn or Horowitz.

    Mastering a camera is very different from mastering photography, IMO. With music, the instrument and the music itself are much more tied together, though there are great pianists who I think are technically better than they are musically expressive, but that's a much finer point and difference.

    In any case, I think there may not be exorbitant numbers of good photographers (at a certain level) more than there are accomplished pianists (at the same level) if we look at it more comparatively. And, mastery of the instrument is only a foundation, not the end of the story.
  16. Thanks, Mike! :)
  17. When I kicked off this thread, I deliberately stayed out of it for a while. Just to keep it "open" and avoid jumping in with my personal reactions or examples as soon as anyone responded. I wanted to avoid this turning into a thread where I postulated a topIc and immediately into discussions about it. So I'm truly delighted that this topic has raised so much interest! All responses so far have been wonderful and I've personally learned from each of them. For me, they are all valuable and there's nothing so far that I disagree on or would argue about.

    Just as an aside, I'm also delighted with the 'tone' (no pun intended ;)) of this discussion. It's respectful, appreciative, constructive and supportive. Just as a newbie, I think this is worth noting. My thanks to all!

    @Supriyo, @The Shadow and @Phil S have together already covered most of the points I had in the back of my mind when I kicked off this thread. And they've expressed them much more eloquently than I ever could have;).

    There are a couple of additional points that I'd like to add, the first one here and others in separate responses.

    To better understand any relationships between different artistic forms (in this case photography and music), I think it's helpful to be clear about what we're comparing and contrasting. There are certainly valid and enlightening general comparisons between photography and music. But IMHO, more specific examples can help our understanding too. We can generalize on similarities and differences but comparing just one song/piece/movement to one photo (or one musical 'body of work' to a photographic one) may be more insightful.

    just as an example: any 30-minute 4 movement symphony or a 20-minute suite (classical, jazz or rock) is intentionally going to include different motifs, moods, intensities, harmonic keys, rhythms etc. So comparing one single photo with a ny 20-30-minute recording inevitably leads us to conclusions that we (intuitiveý) already know: ''given more time, more variation is possible and often necessary.

    But I do believe that we let our feelings/impressions of speficific songs/tracks/albums music (and other art forms) influence our photography/

    Let me give just personal examples (perhaps not the best ones).

    Before I knew anything at all about photography, when I first heard the first few opening bars of Keith Jarret's 1975 "Koln concert' album what I "heard" was a BY&W image: a sparse, haunting image, devoid of movement or emotion. For me, it evoked an impression of loneliness and isolation. Of course, these were just the opening bars and the album included many other, more dynamic and emotionally chareged passages :)!

    Again, without knowing anything about photography, Freddie Mercury's piano playing and lyrics gave me a completely different emotion to Keith Jarret. Both were good, just very very different.
  18. Vincent Peri

    Vincent Peri Metairie, LA

    I've been in photography since 1973, and not once in all that time did I ever think of photography while listening to music, nor did I think of music while out photographing. For me, there isn't any connection. Doubt if there ever will be.
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  19. Did you ever try to make a photo that either tried to reproduce or echo what you heard in the Jarrett or that was inspired by it?

    Speaking of Freddie Mercury, I read someone recently who said, "He was a rock star playing a rock star." That ability not just to create a persona for himself but to create such a self-reflecting persona is so much a part of his music.

    Can the kind of character(s)/persona(s) a lot of rock stars create (Jagger, Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Bowie, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Liberace) apply to a photographer? Can we make ourselves into something through photography? I'd take the position that the characters or personas created and adopted by many music stars have an authenticity that comes from within and reflects something quite real about themselves. What does our photography reflect about us? How are we shaped and how do we shape ourselves as photographers?
  20. Interesting. What if you were to try, just as an exercise and just for the hell of it, to connect them in some way, any way? I find, when I'm told about or exposed to something I've never considered or never tried, I may try it or something similar and wind up getting something out of it. Though I think this is counterintuitive for many people, the older I get, the more I try new things and take certain risks I never took, as opposed to settling into practices I've relied on or habits I've developed. Otherwise, aging can be too much like drying in cement.
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