“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Jul 29, 2011   //   by Mei   //   Blog  //  1 Comment

This is my favourite Frank Zappa quote*. The implication is, of course, that writing about music is pointless.

I used to write about music a lot, reviewing CDs or live shows mostly, but when it comes down to it someone either likes a piece of music or they don’t. Simple as that. When you really analyse Zappa’s words they’re self-defeating. By saying those words HE is effectively writing about music. So Zappa himself is saying that what he’s saying is pointless.

Is making photographs about music pointless?

Photographs are inherently silent and music inherently not. I started out in photography shooting musicians and music. Oh dear.

Here’s a photo I made of Erik Satie’s piano piece ‘Gymnopedies I’:Gymnopedies I by Mei Lewis

You can hear a recital here.

I love Satie’s work and wondered if I could somehow capture its essence visually. He’s long dead, there’s no way I could photograph the man himself, even if I wanted to. His work is mostly for solo piano, there are no words and the patterns in it seem complicated but very natural. It seems very abstract. The nonsensical titles which he shares with Aphex Twin and many modern electronic artists only add to the sense that the music is very pretty but not really about anything.

When making the image I likewise thought I was being very abstract, making a pretty pattern based on my experience of listening. I shot a few images and combined them in several ways to see what felt to me most like Satie. The simple, single image above is the one that felt right to me. Then I discovered that Gymnopedies (there are several in a numbered sequence) in turn were (probably) based on a French poem by J.P. Contamine de Latour which translates as:

Slanting and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy,
Trickled in gusts of gold to the shiny flagstone,
Where the atoms of amber in the fire mirroring themselves,
Mingled their sarabande to the gymnopaedia.

I was surprised, because to me, subjectively, that seems to be a pretty good description of the image I made. Somewhow there seems to have a communication of information going from poem->music->photograph

Am I seeing a similarity that isn’t there? I don’t know. I made several drafts when working to the above picture, one of my rejected images had reflections in it, and mirroring is mentioned in the poem. The one I selected seems to fit the poem best, but I didn’t even know there was a poem when I selected it. Here are a couple of the rejected photos (click to see larger).
Draft/sketch for 'Gymnopedies I'Draft/sketch for 'Gymnopedies I'

Is writing about photography pointless?

Finally we get to the real entry point for this discussion. What got me thinking about this question was an exhibition I saw recently at The Great Big Empty Shop. Lots of info here. I went partly because it seemed to be in some ways a similar idea to No Gallery. I think there are far more differences than similarities but that’s another topic.

There was an exhibition of some of The Atrium’s photography student’s work and a collection of quotes by famous photographers put together by Andy Pearsall, a lecturer at the uni. (And in another coincidence I see he has some light trail photos on his Flickr stream. I wonder if they’re truly abstract?)

My two favourites there are:
“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are. ” - Paul Caponigro (coincidentally most of his photos seem to be of inanimate objects).
“All photography is propoganda” - Martin Parr.

Not on the wall but a few of my favourite quotes by others are:
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Of course it’s all luck.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson
“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” - Garry Winogrand.
This last is probably my favourite.

I’ve met Martin Parr, very briefly, but all he said to me was “We like flash.” Not one of the great lines, but pretty good.

Martin Parr portfolio review at Newport UniversityMartin Parr portfolio review at Newport University

While we’re on the subject, consider this image:
'Think of Llandudno' by Mei Lewis

Let’s ‘write about it’ by giving it a few possible titles:

‘Off The Leash’ – by Martin Parr

‘Think of Llandudno’ – by Carlos Salvatori

‘Martin Parr’ – by Mei Lewis

So, what do you think? Is writing about photography pointless?

1 Comment

  • Hiya
    Personally I don’t think the light painting are abstract as I had some idea of how they would turn out.
    Is writing about photography pointless? i don’t think so, as that’s what your doing isn’t it? writing about yours and others work.
    If a image provokes a discussion or an idea then we have done our job I believe.

    all the best

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