the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Musical Instruments

ROAD SCARS

Let’s crank this bad boy up…

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MUSEUM IN PHOENIX, ARIZONA is possibly the largest collection of musical artifacts in the world, a stunning array of everyday instruments from nearly every people nation on the planet. Opened in 2000, MIM is not merely a house of refined and rare instruments: it boasts as many humble skin drums and clay flutes as it does Steinways and Strads. Its simple mission is to show the linkage, the commonality between how all races express themselves through music, and to promote understanding by showing how those expressions have spilled over cultural lines, physical borders, and tribal traditions. The museum shows that everyone who picks, strums, blows or strikes to weave sound into soulfulness is really in the same big band, an idea which is a gold mine for photographers.

One of the museum’s greatest strengths is in showcasing not only the instruments themselves but the context of their use, from native costumes and ritual regalia to the cases and support equipment used to house or protect everything from horns to harmonicas. Indeed, a very large part of MIM’s collection is actually composed of cases, boxes, and stage gear, since they, too, are part of the instruments’ journeys. One very twentieth-century element of this, as regards the museum’s astonishing collection of guitars, can be seen in the first generation of  devices created to amplify sound following the birth of electric instruments. In both traveling and permanent exhibits, the Musical Instrument Museum affords equal status to both the killer axes of rock and jazz legend and the amps and cases that accompanied them on their storied gigs. In essence, the first amplifiers were instruments in their own right, since they not only made things louder but shaped and sculpted the performances that flowed through them.

Careful with that amp, boys

Leather and chrome, speaker cones and vacuum tubes, arcane logos and legendary trademarks….the “support” elements of electric music are often as familiar as the guitars with which they shared stages. All that texture. All those scars, bumps, and tears, with stories to accompany each ding and dent. Instruments in the 20th and now 21st century are so transitory in design that one era’s state-of-the-art quickly becomes the next era’s isn’t-that-quaint, models rocketing from cutting edge to old-guard within a generation. That spells obsolescence, which in turn calls for a photographic record of things which are fading out of fashion with greater and greater speed. In essence, museums dealing in fairly recent artifacts can be completists, since they can showcase both objects and the cultural trappings that accompanied them. By contrast, in studying relics from the ancient world, parts of the story are lost: we may have the flutes that were buried with Tut, but no way of knowing how their scales or melodies were constituted.

In another 4,000 years, who knows? All of the Les Paul Gibsons in the world may have become extinct, with only an occasional case to mark their passing. Funny to think of someone looking into the empty box and musing, “I wonder how they played this thing…”

 

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HANDIWORK

 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE ARE SEVERAL LANGUAGES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR that are truly universal, experiential tongues for which no translation is neither possible nor necessary. The visual language of photography is one. Music is certainly another. Both have the ability to cross cultures, continents, and generations.

Almost since its arrival, the universal language of the visual has worked to capture the raw energy of the musical….attempting, even, to try to track that energy to its human source, the exact junction where the personality directs and guides the voice of the instrument. For some photographers, this energy is in the sweaty, furrowed brow of a Miles Davis, his lips laboring over a lyrical line in a dark club. For others, it may be the skyward arch of Jimi Hendrix’ wrist as it tears free from a Stratocaster. For me, the magic is in human hands.

Hands are the tools through which musicians translate yet another language, that which starts in the brain and flows through to keys, pipes, buttons, strings. Fingers shape song, modify moods, and dictate terms to other musicians. They wield batons, transfer a composer’s wishes to paper. They signal, they hint. Hands are both the original maestros and the humblest servants of music. That qualifies them as wellsprings of visual drama, and where there is drama, there are pictures.

Of course, not all drama need be, well, dramatic. The unspoken linkage between musicians, even in small, simple gatherings such as the tight Irish quintet seen here, turns all those hands into a dance company: cues emerge: signals move from singer to soloist: and, if we’re lucky, photographs track all that transmission, that silent language, that unspoken eloquence.


ANTHROPOGRAPHY

Tuning up: A fiddler runs a few practice riffs before a barn dance in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Tuning up: a fiddler runs a few practice riffs before a barn dance in Flagstaff, Arizona.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

WRITING CLICHE NUMBER 5,218 STATES THAT YOU SHOULD WRITE about what you know. Mine your own experience. Use your memories and dreams as a kickoff point for the Great American Novel, or, at least, the Okay American E-book. But while the “know-it-do-it” school of technique offers writers a pretty sound foundation for scribblers, photographers need to learn how to leave their native nests and fly into unknown country. The best pictures sometimes are where you, comfortably, aren’t.

Caperin' up a storm, by golly.

Caperin’ up a storm, by golly.

Shooting an event or lifestyle that is completely outside yourself confers an instantaneous objectivity of sorts to your pictures, since you don’t have any direct experience with the things you’re trying to capture. You’re forced to pretty much go instinctive, since you can’t draw on your memory banks. This is certainly true of combat photographers or people dropped down into the middle of fresh disasters, but it also works with anything that’s new to you.

Take square-dancing. No, I mean it. You take square-dancing, as in, I’d rather be covered in honey and hornets than try to master something that defines “socially awkward” for yours truly. I can’t deny that, on the few occasions that I’ve observed this ritual up close, it obviously holds infinite enjoyment for anyone who isn’t, well, me. But being me is the essential problem. I not only possess the requisite two left feet, I am lucky, on some occasions to even be ambulatory if the agenda calls for anything but a rote sequence of left-right-left. Again, I concede that square-dancers seem almost superhumanly happy whenever doing their do-si-doing, and all props to them. Personally, however, I can cause a lot less damage and humiliation for all concerned if I bring a camera to the dance instead of a partner.

Shooting something you don’t particularly fancy yourself is actually something of an advantage for a photographer. It allows you to just dissect the activity’s elements, using the storytelling techniques you do know to show how the whole thing works. You’re using the camera to blow apart an engine and see its working parts independently from each other.

In either writing or shooting, clinging to what you know will keep your approach and your outcomes fairly predictable. But when photography meets anthropology, you can inch toward a little personal growth. You may even say “yes” when someone asks you if you care to dance.

Or you could just continue to maintain your death grip on your camera.

Yeah, let’s go with that.


STRING THEORY

Repose.

Repose. 1/250 sec., f/3.5, ISO 125, 35mm prime lens. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

CERTAIN INANIMATE OBJECTS INTERACT WITH THE LIVING TO SUCH A LARGE DEGREE, that, to me, they retain a certain store of energy

Just horsehair and wood, but it has an elegance all its own.

Just horsehair and wood, but it has an elegance all its own.

even when standing alone. Things that act in the “co-creation” of events or art somehow radiate the echo of the persons who touched them.

Musical instruments, for my mind’s eye, fairly glow with this force, and, as such, are irresistable as still life subjects, since, literally, there is still life emanating from them.

Staging the object just outside the reach of full light, the picture sort of sculpted itself.

Staging the object just outside the reach of full light helped  the violin sort of sculpt itself. 1/800 sec., f/2.5, ISO 100, 35mm prime lens. 

A while back I learned that my wife had, for years, held onto a violin once used for the instruction of one of her children. I was eager to examine and photograph it, not because it represented any kind of technical challenge, but because there were so many choices of things to look at in its contours and details. There are many “sites” along various parts of a violin where creation surges forth, and I was eager to see what my choices would look like. Also, given the golden color of the wood, I knew that one of our house’s “super windows”, which admit midday light that is soft and diffused, would lend a warmth to the violin that flash or constant lighting could never do.

Everything in the shoot was done with an f/1.8 35mm prime lens, which is fast enough to illuminate details in mixed light and allows for selectively shallow depth of field where I felt it was useful. Therefore I could shoot in full window light, or, as in the image on the left, pull the violin partly into shadow to force attention on select details.

Although in the topmost image I indulged the regular urge to “tell a story” with a few arbitrary

The delight is in the details.

The delight is in the details.

props, I was eventually more satisfied with close-ups around the body of the violin itself, and, in one case, on the bow. Sometimes you get more by going for less.

One thing is certain: some objects can be captured in a single frame, while others kind of tumble over in your mind, inviting you to revisit, re-imagine, or more widely apprehend everything they have to give the camera. In the case of musical instruments, I find myself returning to the scene of the crime again and again.

They are singing their songs to me, and perhaps over time, I quiet my mind enough to hear them.

And perhaps learn them.


WHAT COULD BE

My umpteenth piano picture over a lifetime, but one which at least shows me something I don’t usually see. Available light, straight out of the camera. 1/50 sec., 5/5.6, ISO 100, 18mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THERE ARE ALWAYS CONCEPTS THAT YOU FORCE YOURSELF TO RE-VISIT, almost to the point of obsession. We all have subjects that, as photographers, we just can’t stop turning over in our minds. This reluctance to “just move on” may occur with a place, a person’s face, an arrangement of shapes, a select element of light, but, whatever the source, it gnaws at us. We dream of the next chance to go back and tackle it again. We truly believe that the “right” shot is in there somewhere, just as a statue of an elephant is somewhere inside a slab of marble. As the old joke goes, just chip away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant and there you are (That’s either a really stupid joke or amazing profundity. Depending on which day you ask me, I can take either side. Anyway….).

I have at least one restaurant, a small city park, about a dozen still life projects, and one or two human faces that haunt me in this way. In every case, I get stuck on the idea that, with a moment of inspiration, I’m one click away from the ideal I see in my mind. Only, like a desert mirage, the ideal keeps wiggling and warping into something else. Maybe I’ve already made the best version of that picture already. Maybe there really is nothing more to be done.

Arnold Newman’s amazing abstract portrait of a piano, “accompanied” by composer Igor Stravinsky. This is a copyrighted image.

As a lifelong musical tinkerer, I’ve always been interested in pianos both as machines that are crafted to do incredibly complicated things, and as a kind of sculpture, a shaper of space and light. Some photographers have used them as incredibly dynamic design elements to remarkably dramatic effect. Arnold Newman’s classic portrait of composer Igor Stravinsky uses only the lid of a concert grand to flank the maestro, but it’s all the piano he needs to tell the story and it’s a wondrous horizontal use of space. Others have created brilliant images using just portions of the keyboard. Do a search of your own and be amazed at the variety of results.

Me, I’m a “guts” kinda guy. Lifting the lid on my first piano to see what made it tick was one of the most thrilling moments of my childhood, and, now, years later, I see the mechanism inside my own baby grand as a way to reflect, capture and shape light. It’s like having a giant Spirograph or a metallic spider web. Lots of ways this could go. In the above image, morning light gave me a big break, as the golden cast of the good, early stuff blended with ambient tones in the harp strings and the inside of the cabinet. While the light falls off sharply at the margins, it makes much of the mechanism fairly glow, and, while I can’t stop tinkering with my lifelong “piano-as-design-object” quest (at least this side of the grave), I think this is a step in the right direction. Where we’re eventually going, who knows?

As usual, I’m just enjoying the ride.

Thoughts?