Music and Photography
Since I attended a workshop in Port Townsend last year, I've been looking for my voice in my photography. The how I say what I saycomponent of my photography. After a lot of conversation and a lot of thinking on the matter, I realised that there is a deep connection to music in my art. Be it a source of inspiration or a live show, that connection has grown a lot since I started shooting live shows. With concert photography for me, it's so much more than photographing a band rocking out on stage. It's capturing a fellow artist, mid-performance, and their voice communicating what they want to say through music. Until recently, I'd always mentally separated other artistic mediums - dance, sculpture, painting, photography, music, etc - they were all different. Then I realised that I as an artist, like them, am also looking for the best way to use my voice to share a perspective, a story, or a message. The fact that they were singing and playing instruments was just the same as me manipulating light on my subject - it's all how we choose to use our voice, and it's persistent throughout these different artistic mediums. All these genres of art have always been so different to me. How could dancing and photography by the same artist share a common construction? I know now, that it's because of voice. And its yours, no matter what the medium.
I've been given a couple of chances to speak about music and photography for me recently. Once, in an email to attend that same Port Townsend weekend this year, and another in a podcast on concert photography. I've been giving it a lot of thought since then and I really wanted to talk more about it and share it here on my blog.
It's a beautiful thing when a song makes you want to cheer, smile, or cry. It's a piece of art that's evoking a feeling. I want that with my work in photography - I want to make art that really makes people feel. I've been photographing live music a lot in the last 12 months. Of all genres. Punk rock in Seattle. Pop music in Portland. Jazz music in New Orleans. In part because I love it and in part searching for this connection to music, both in aid of finding my voice. The photos that stand out to me are those split-second moments where you can feel the music. Where you can feel what the musicians are saying from just looking at the image. And most importantly, where my voice conveys how music makes me feel. No words, no sound. Just a photo and my way to share how I feel about their music.
Recently in Austin, TX there's been a festival on called South by Southwest. It's a massive event in the music industry, one I'd desperately love to photograph one day. Dave Grohl, a musician in the truest sense of the word, gave the opening keynote speech (the video is at the bottom of this post). It's about 50 minutes long, but when I watched it felt like 10 or 15. Grohl was talking about his experiences directly as a musician, speaking to musicians, but so much of what he says carries over into making impactful art and discovering just what the hell you want to do with your work. There were a couple of sections of his keynote that really stood out to me, and I'll paste them here because I really want to share them... I'm quoting him, so excuse the profanity. Or, enjoy it :)
It was a riff. I gave it all up for a fucken riff. Interestingly enough though, that song is all instrumental, there's no vocals. It's guitar, drums, keyboards, percussion, each getting a solo in the song. No vocals. But what I heard in all of those solos were voices. The voices of each musician - their personalities, their technique, their feel, the sound of people playing music with other people. It made me want to play music with other people too.
Never one for taking lessons or direction, I was left to my own devices and devoted every waking hour to playing music. It became my religion. Their record store my church, the rock stars my saints, and their songs my hymns. Springfield VA wasn't necessarily known for breeding rock stars - a career in music never really seemed possible to me it just seemed too good to be true. Surely the faces on my KISS posters weren't getting paid to do this. But that never mattered to me because I had finally found my voice. And that was all I needed to survive from now on. I liked my new voice because no matter how bad it sounded, it was mine. There was nobody there to tell me what was right or what was wrong, so there was no right or wrong.
We practiced in a barn. Every day. It was all that we had. There was no sun. There was no moon. There was just . . . the barn. And those songs. Kurt had, without a doubt, found his voice. Every practice would begin with an improvisational, free-form jam, which kind of served as an exercise in dynamic and musical collaboration / communication. We were speaking to each other without words. Verbal communication was never really Nirvana's forte, so we spoke to each other with our instruments. But, I like to think that what the world heard in Nirvana's music was the sound of three human beings, three distinct personalities, their inconsistencies and their imperfections proudly on display for everyone to hear. Three people that had been left to their own devices their entire lives to find their voices. It was honest. It was pure. And It was real. Up until that point, no one had ever told me how to play, or what to play. And now, no one would ever again.
There is no right or wrong. There is only, your voice. Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing from a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner, a cello, a turntable, a guitar, serrato, a studer, It doesn't matter. What matters most is that it's your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it's fucking gone. Because every human being is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last...
It's there, if you want it. Now, more than ever, independence as a musician has been blessed by the advance of technology, making it easier for any inspired young musician to start their own band, write their own song, record their own record, book their own shows, write and publish their own fanzine (although now I believe you call it a "blog"?) . . . now more than ever, you can do this, it can be all yours. And left to your own devices, you can find your voice.
Recently, I came home with the new Beatles vinyl box set. It's amazing. It's the size of a fucking Tumi suitcase, it weighs 50 pounds. As I walked into the house, my daughters Harper who's three, and Violet who's six, looked up and gasped, "What is that????" I said, "It's all of the Beatles' records!!!" Now, I have already spent hours brainwashing them with Beatles songs . . . they're cool. But this was vinyl! They had never seen that before. I set up the turntable in their room, opened the box, and started showing them how it's done. "Ok . . . you take the record out of the sleeve, here are the songs on this side, here are the songs on the other side . . . carefully place it on the turn table . . . gently put the needle down . . . careful!" They were absolutely blown away. I left the room, came back half an hour later, and there they were, dancing to "Get Back," album covers strewn all over the floor . . . sound familiar? We have all been there.
And, as a proud father, I pray that someday that they are left to their own devices, that they realize that the musician comes first, and that they find their voice, and that they become someone's Edgar Winter, they become someone's Beatles, and that they incite a riot, or an emotion, or start a revolution, or save someone's life.
That they become someone's hero.
At the end of each of these sections of this speech I couldn't decide if I wanted to cry or jump up and cheer. Grohl was talking about exactly how photographing music makes me feel, and therefore how my photos say what they say and why they say what they say. From listening to music and seeing musicians perform their art live, I'm learning a lot about how any artist uses the "tools in their toolbox" to speak their mind. It's enlightening to see it done in a totally different artistic medium.
My voice is another thing altogether. It's a flickery apparition in my head and in my camera's viewfinder, but my voice is there. I don't always recognise it, and it comes and goes. I'm always looking for my voice when I'm out shooting. Perhaps those times when I don't hear it are when the scene before me holds no meaning for me. Perhaps I have nothing to say about it. Or, perhaps I'm just subconsciously not listening to my own voice. All three are possible scenarios.
It's pretty great when a song or even a single lyric serves as inspiration for an image. In a kind of symbiotic creativity, one artist unknowingly fuels the other. Even in such a simple way as to prompt another for an idea - it's a catalyst for your own thoughts. Often I find that my voice is strongest when it is inspired by music. The fact that this realisation stemmed from actually photographing live music and the artists behind that is just bringing this full circle. I still don't fully understand what the catalyst for this was and I'm not sure I ever will. Music speaks to me, which means art speaks to me, and that fuels my own creative work, so that I can speak to others.
What I can say unequivocally at this point is that experiencing another artist from a completely unrelated genre discover and garner their own voice has been very enlightening and has had some very large ripple effects into my own art. There are some musicians like Hendrix, Davis, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Dylan, or Butler have such a unique sound. Especially with instrumental songs (or albums in the case of Rodrigo y Gabriela) you can feel the artist's voice. When you hear their music, you just know it is them. The fact the artist is completely able to identify themselves and say exactly what they want to without words is incredible to me.
Photographs are stories without words. Together they are an encyclopedia of our world, our cultures, and our own unique lives. I want people to see an image and be able to say, "Jacob Lucas made that photograph", purely from how I created the photograph. This can only happen by truly discovering my voice in my work. My eyes, ears, and mind are fully open.