This is a guest post by Phillip Mackenzie, a Pennsylvania-based wedding & portrait photographer.
When people hear that I have three degrees in music and I’m now turning to photography, they often give me a quizzical look and ask why I would make such a drastic change. I don’t think it’s all that drastic, in fact, images and music are far more intertwined in their compositions and affectations than you might think.
You’re out somewhere and a song starts. The infectious beat creeps into your body and your foot starts to move involuntarily, tapping to the rhythm. Something deep and primal infects you, and when the song ends you just want to hear it again! Any music that ellicits this sort of reaction is “get up and dance” music. This is opposed to “sit down and shut up” music that tends to be more cerebral than emotional, and demands your utmost concentration and thought to understand, just like some photography.
Music is everywhere. And it dares you not to pay attention.
Music is one of the most powerful forces in existence, isn’t it? Plato thought so. For millennia, people have danced, kissed, fallen in love, cried, got angry about, even gone into battle to a soundtrack. There’s an immediate, gut-level reaction. For instance: you either love or hate bagpipes. I’ve never met anyone who was indifferent. (And if you are, I’d love to meet you!) If you love them, there’s no more rousing sound than the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard. If you detest them, you want to rip off your ears.
Images have power too.
Images can elicit the same gut-level reaction, be it positive or negative. Jill Greenburg’s series of portraits called “End Times” is provocative. Your opinion is immediate, strong, and gut-level. Has time ever escaped you as you’ve taken in an image? The same reason you can’t get a song out of your head is the same reason you can’t stop looking at a photograph. While I can’t really explain the magic “why” of everyone’s gut reaction, I can explain the “how.” When you hear a great song, you play it for your friends, tweet about it, make sure other people listen to it. When our clients see photos that sing to them, they can’t help but spread the word. All of a sudden that one photo (or more, hopefully!) can spread across the entire world like wildfire. If you create images that sing, they’ll do all the work for you. And here’s how to do it.
Break it down.
What was the last photo you saw? What do you remember? Did you feel great joy or desolation? Melancholy? A couple deeply in love with each other? Both music and photography have the ability to capture our emotions and put them into aural or visual form. They do it the same way, just using different vocabulary. Let’s look at the basic elements of music:
These are the most obvious and affective elements of music, and they are all paralleled in photography. Today we’ll explore the first two, melody and harmony.
Hear the Melody, Be the Melody. (The Obvious, In-Your-Face Part)
When I mention a song to someone and they tell me that they don’t know it, I respond with “Oh, you know, the one that goes like this…” and then I hum or sing a few bars of the melody. Strictly speaking, the melody is the theme, the single most recognizable part of a piece of music. Usually it’s the first thing you recognize about a tune (sometimes it’s the rhythm, but more often than not you still can’t be sure until you hear the melody). Melodies are amazing creatures; they can carry emotion and meaning even without words. When there is a lyric, though, the melody serves as the structure by which we remember the words. Don’t believe me? Try to recite the lyric to your favorite song without thinking about the melody…it’s a challenge! It functions in the same way as the subject of your photograph. It is the most basic, in-your-face element of an image. Look at the following image for 5 seconds or so, then close your eyes and see what you recall about it.
I’ll bet the first thing you remember is the girl’s incredibly bright and engaging smile. You might also recall the supporting color palette, and the contrast her hair color makes against the grassy background. All of those background details play a supporting role to her face, particularly the smile. This is the difference between melody and harmony. While you can distinctly remember a melody, the harmony tends to collect itself into large blocks or swaths of color or texture. While her smile may seem distinct in your memory, you may just recall the generally bright green color surrounding her without the various yellow leaves, and you’re not likely to remember the exact position of her left hand or even how curly or straight her hair might be. Melody. It’s what you remember.
Harmony: The Enabler. (The Bricks and Mortar of Music and Images)
If the melody is what you remember, the harmony is what helps you remember it. It’s what enables the melody to live and sing to our ears. It’s the rest of the Sistine Chapel ceiling that isn’t God and Adam. It’s the parts of New York City that aren’t tourist attractions. It’s the rest of the cast of a movie or a musical. In one-man shows, there’s always a supporting character even if it’s just the actor doing a different voice or personality (think Smeagol/Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), or speaking to an inanimate object like Tom Hanks did to his volleyball in Cast Away.
If I think of my favorite song, I might not be able to remember specifics about the harmony, but I can remember the “chunks.” In fact, it’s often incredibly difficult to sing a tune without hearing the harmony (either externally or in your “inner” ear). All you have to do is watch the auditions for American Idol for 5 minutes (or even 30 seconds) and you’ll hear that it’s quite difficult, and for some, impossible, to sing something without an accompaniment. Any time Randy Jackson tells them that their singing was “pitchy,” it would probably have been better with someone playing the harmony. Then again, if everyone sounded good with the harmony behind them, karaoke wouldn’t be any fun!
Think of your favorite song. Can you hum the harmony? How much about it can you remember? A melody can be made or destroyed by the harmony. In photography, the harmony could be called many things: the background, visual palette, scene, or frame to name a few. It’s the stuff in the image that’s not your subject. For a bridal portrait, the harmony might be a bright, vibrant, out-of-focus background and a bouquet.
Getting even more specific, the subject might be so small as just a person’s eyes, and everything else, including the rest of their body, becomes secondary. A fine example is Joe McCurry’s famous “Afghan Girl” (if you don’t know it, Google it now)—her indescribably hypnotic eyes are without doubt the focal point of the image. But without the rest of the image – her clothing, the framing, the green wall in the background that oddly matches her eye color – her eyes aren’t nearly as spectacular. The melody might be her eyes, but the harmony is the rest of the image. Nothing in that photograph is unimportant. Every element is there as part of the melody or the harmony to support it. Her eyes sing in that photograph and draw you in to see more.
In Part II, we’ll look at the other elements and how all of them work in collaboration to produce a truly memorable song or spectacular image.