Updated: May 3, 2020
I’ve always felt there was a strong connection between music and photography - I make no claim to any originality in this thought! Ansel Adams trained as a classical pianist, only deciding on a career as a photographer when confronted with physical limitations (hand size) that put a ceiling on his potential. Two of my very favorite photographers, Charles Cramer and Huntington Witherill, also trained seriously as classical pianists. As a recent beginning pianist myself, I have seen many parallels between music and photography in concepts like melody, harmonics, and dynamics. There are many more connections to be made.
For a period of time I did only black and white photography. While I was in that phase, I also had a student who played classical guitar and was a good conversationalist. Once, when talking about playing the guitar, he said emphatically “It’s all about tone!” That resonated very strongly with me at the time, as I was discovering the importance of tones in black and white photography. The blacks, whites, various shades of gray, and how they all related to each other within the composition were of utmost importance.
A few days ago we lost John Prine, a singer-songwriter whose work I have vastly underappreciated. If you are unfamiliar with him and his music, I would suggest listening to this very enjoyable interview on the NPR program World Cafe. (Warning: There is some language you might not want young children to hear from around 33:30 to 37:00.) When reading an article about him in our local paper I came across this quote from him:
“You just sit and look around you. You don’t have to make up stuff. If you just try to take down the bare description of what’s going on, and not try to over-describe something, then it leaves space for the reader or the listener to fill in their experience with it, and they become part of it.”
This was fascinating to me, because the most obvious parallels between music and photography would probably concern music without lyrics, but here was a quote by a person whose music is mostly about stories contained in the lyrics saying something very profound that can just as well apply to all art. If we simply replace the words “reader or the listener” with “viewer,” then these words perfectly describe the process I try to adhere to when making photographs. The first two sentences encapsulate the idea of noticing captivating bits of the world that don’t necessarily jump out at us, but are also not contrived. The next sentence describes photographing what we see in a way that captures its essence, but leaves some to the imagination.
John Prine will be sorely missed by his devoted fans, as well as by the rest of us who are just now discovering the depth of his body of work. And those of us trying to express something significant with our photography can take his words as an exhortation to guide us when we pick up our cameras and go out in the world.