Having had careers in both f ields, I have often thought about a parallel between photography and music regarding the way words affect the perception of the listener or viewer.
I started doing darkroom work 65 years ago and began photographing weddings while still in high school. After workshops with Ansel Adams beginning in 1967, I turned from photographing people to photography as art. This increased to full time by 1979. My music background included playing in bands and orchestras, two degrees, and f ive years of conducting and arranging, followed by 30 years of singing choral works with symphony orchestras. (I now listen to music instead of participating.)
A photographer or composer (or other artist) can exercise very much or very little control over how a given work will be perceived, depending on the presence or absence of words, and how this works in music is particularly instructive. I will call the sort of music that exerts maximum influence on the thoughts of the listener “Type 1.” Songs with words in a language understood by the listener do this.
Music that involves less specific direction (Type 2) includes that which is meant to describe a story or give an impression purely through sounds, such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s La Mer. The technical term for these is program music, and the printed program usually tells the audience what the composer had in mind. Other Type 2 examples are instrumental pieces with descriptive titles, and vocal works with words in a language you don’t know, such as the Verdi Requiem.
Music with no extra-musical references (Type 3) is called absolute music. Typically, this would be a symphony, concerto, or other instrumental composition identified by number or by the letter of the key in which it was written, instead of by a title consisting of words.
I will use Type 1 to designate photographs (or art in general) that depict familiar people, places, or objects. In Type 2, the kind of subject being shown is apparent, but the viewer doesn’t know which specif ic one is depicted; there may be a title that inf luences the viewer’s thoughts. Type 3 photographs are completely abstract; the viewer can’t tell what was in front of the camera. Pleasure comes entirely from shapes, tones, textures, or colors with no words present.
The absence of verbal cues in Type 3 art and music not only gives more freedom to the listener/viewer, but also asks more of him or her. Although anyone can appreciate a beautiful landscape or a song with interesting words, full enjoyment of Type 3 art or music is more likely for those with considerable previous viewing/listening experience.
During most of my photographic career, I made only a few truly abstract images, but some of my most satisfying photographs, made from whitewashed-building details on the Greek islands, approached abstraction. Last year, following a decision to seek more opportunities to make Type 3 photographs, I obtained permission to photograph details of wrecked cars in four junkyards. The first few photographs from this project accompany this article.
Titles are a problem, since it isn’t very useful to have 25 abstract photographs labeled Untitled, 2009. Accordingly, I have used the initials of the junkyard and chronological numbering of the negatives made there. Thus, both image and title are abstract for anyone who doesn’t know the naming scheme.
I hope you looked at the accompanying photographs before reading this text and were unable to tell what the subjects were. They are meant to be seen with no words from me inf luencing your thoughts. As Brett Weston said, “Photography is a visual medium and the less said, the better.”