Sunday, September 28, 2014

Photography, Elemental Forms, Narrative, and Music

"If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.... I get most joy in life out of music" - Albert Einstein

In my "Long belated return to blogging..." blog entry a few weeks ago, I alluded to finding a new reverie in the "music" of Kauai's tonal forms and rhythms - something I'm becoming more and more drawn to in general (far transcending what my "eye" saw during my family's trip to Kauai in July, and something I am becoming more and more sensitive to in my photography); but I did not, in that ealier entry, elaborate on what I meant by "music."

Historically, the connection between photography and music goes back at least as far as the oft-told story of how, in his youth, the great Ansel Adams needed a few years to choose between pursuing one or the other. Having obviously chosen photography, Ansel's passion for - and ability to make - music never waned throughout the remaining years of his life. Indeed, it both informed and inspired his art. Some of his best known aphorisms are couched in music-speak; e.g., "Photographers are in a sense composers," he once said, "and the negatives are their scores." The list of accomplished photographers who are also gifted in music (and vice versa) is long (Graham Nash, Ralph Gibson, Milt Hinton, Bryan Adams, and Kenny Rogers, to name just a few); perhaps as long as the one that includes mathematicians and scientists as well (e.g., Bruce Barnbaum, Larry Blackwood, Norman Koren, Charles Johnson, and - of course - one of the co-inventors of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot).

"Even though fixed in time, a photograph evokes as much feeling as that which comes from music or dance. Whatever the mode – from the snapshot to the decisive moment to multi-media montage – the intent and purpose of photography is to render in visual terms feelings and experiences that often elude the ability of words to describe. In any case, the eyes have it, and the imagination will always soar farther than was expected." - Ralph Gibson

But the sense in which I find myself applying "music" to photography nowadays has little to do with this simplest of associations; for I mean it quite literally: images perceived as music! Perhaps spurred by subconscious machinations about my multi-year experiments with "Synesthetic Landscapes,"  I am tending to hear the tonal and elemental forms and structures of images, as though my visual and aural circuits have crossed (which, not coincidentally, is the essence of synesthesia). But whereas my "Synesthetic Landscape" series is admittedly an artificial construct, deliberately crafted to evoke a sense of synesthesia in the viewer (and whose physical appearance actually owes nothing to synesthesia, per se, since it is an almost wholly "cognitive" experiment), inexplicably, my aesthetic "eye" is being drawn more and more to compositions that - synesthestically - evoke real music within me. I hear the images that my camera's viewfinder shows me, and the ones that I seem to keep and decide to print are those whose melodies I enjoy the most. My current favorite "reason" (that I give to those who ask) why a specific image, say, continues to adorn my office wall, when others - even those I have liked in the past - come and go with regularity, is that the keepers simply sing.  But what do I mean by this?

After some deliberation (and with the understanding that these thoughts are still closer to stream-of-conscious ruminations than coherent worldviews), I'd like to offer a hypothesis of why certain images just seem to "sing" - and others do not - and what this may have to say about the general aesthetic appreciation of images on a fundamental level (at least one that I have not previously encountered in academic discussions). I propose that the images with which we most strongly resonate - those that give the most aesthetic "pleasure" - are those whose innate harmonies are entwined on two levels: (1) spatial, in which an otherwise complex morass of visual details and textures may be distilled into a much simpler set of elemental forms and structures; and (2) temporal, in which the relationships among the elemental spatial forms are, in our mind's eyes and ears, experienced as a narrative that unfolds in time. It is when an image harbors an especially acute harmony in both its spatial and temporal dimensions that our gaze tends to linger just a bit longer; and to which we can only say, if asked, "Why do you keep looking at it?" that it simply sings.

"Music creates order out of chaos." - Yehudi Menuhin

The "image" at the top of this entry depicts a 10-frame "narrative" that includes the elemental forms I've deconstructed out of one of my favorite "Kauai music" images (that also appeared in my earlier post). Here is the spatial deconstruction itself:

Each frame of the "narrative" contains just the elemental forms that - at a given slice in time - draw most attention (for me; your narrative will, of course, be different). I first look at the dominant root at near center, as it swoops to the upper right of the composition (frame 1). My eye next goes over to the top left to take in the gentle rhythm of the leaves (frame 2), then moving downward to gaze at the smaller root and the decaying bamboo sheath to its right (frame 3); and so on. The narrative encodes my experience in time of the elemental forms that make up the otherwise static image. The spatial forms are not only pleasant to look at (at least, for me) because they evoke a "harmony of fixed structures" (i.e., the "parts" that make up the distillation at the far right in the triptych above), but also strongly evoke a music-like "harmony of dynamic structures" that are best appreciated as an aesthetic narrative that unfolds in an inner, experiential time. It is as though the innate harmony of inherent forms is so strong that it lifts the otherwise two dimensional image into a higher dimension; one that is best "seen" by having its innate melody heard, and as its elemental notes gently play out, and linger, in our mind's ears. Photographic aesthetics as an experiential union of space and time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kauai Bamboo

“A monk asked Ts'ui-wei about the meaning of Buddhism.  Ts'ui-wei answered: "Wait until there is no one around, and I will tell you."  Some time later the monk approached Ts'ui-wei again, saying, 'There is nobody here now.  Please answer me.'  Ts'ui-wei led him out into the garden and went over to the bamboo grove, saying nothing.  Still the monk did not understand, so at last Ts'ui-wei said, 'Here is a tall bamboo; there is a short one!'” Zen Parable