Headphone Photographs

I would prefer by far to write music which has something fresh to reveal at each new hearing than music which is completely self-evident the first time, and though it may remain pleasing makes no essential contribution thereafter.

~Roger Sessions

I love music. My musical taste is diverse, and I almost always have something playing in the background as I work and drive; sometimes just in my mind. When hiking and camping, I alternate between listening to the natural world and listening to some beautiful musical score. It’s a great privilege of our technological age that I can be out, many miles from any person or town, surrounded by natural beauty, and still able to listen to works by great composers, living or dead; some performed by talented individuals and some by world-class orchestras, bearing some of the acoustics of the world’s finest concert halls.

Among my perennial favorites are some songs that, while not necessarily limited to one genre or performer, are in a special class of musical experience. I refer to them as “headphone music” because each time I listen to them I put on headphones, both because I want to hear every subtle nuance, and because I want to block out any other sound that may distract me. I want to fill my entire inner space with their sound. I never listen to these songs as a backdrop. In fact, if one of these songs pops up in a playlist while I’m driving or working, I’ll skip it, and will often return to it later, with headphones on.

I can think of some works of visual art, including some photographs, that I also can’t just look at in a casual way. When I come across such a work, I must dedicate my whole attention to it, as if putting on “visual headphones” to isolate the image form other visual distractions, so I can deliberately make myself conscious of its most minute details, its mood, the nuances of its composition. As I do with some music, I like to deconstruct the effects in my mind, parsing out individual threads (perhaps individual musical instruments, or individual visual elements) and following them as they weave through, and harmonize with, the rest of the (audible or visual) composition.

For the most part, I enjoy “headphone images” when presented in a medium and in a size that are conducive to consuming my full attention. These may include fine prints, high-quality books, or large digital photographs that can fill my entire screen, or at least a substantial portion of it, with just a featureless background taking up the rest of the space. Alas, it’s an experience I never have with images posted to online forums, nor images presented among text that may distract from them. I also can’t fully appreciate a headphone image if it is poorly reproduced (e.g., some magazines with poor print quality, or prints made on some substrates, such as canvas, that do not retain the full richness of color, tone, and details that makes it a headphone image to begin with).

Although I find headphone images in a variety of genres and media, they have a common denominator: the more attention I give them, the more I discover and the more I’m impressed with them. In some cases I’ve been studying certain images for years, and may even have favorite “visual passages” that I like to revisit time and again (focusing on them, tracing their lines in my mind, etc.), but even then I sometimes discover new things with repeated viewing: subtle juxtapositions, implied lines, repeating patterns, or some enjoyable and uncommon color combination. I like to ponder whether some of these resulted from a deliberate conscious decision by the artist, or whether they found their way into the composition because of some subconscious intuition.

When I listen to headphone music, I pay attention to the occasional squeaking of strings being plucked, the taps of fingers hitting keys, lips smacking against reeds, feet hitting pedals, vibrations of wood instruments, hints of the musician’s breathing, etc.: things that are not parts of the music but that nonetheless add tactile and personal dimensions to the performance. When studying a headphone photograph, I look for signs of what I imagine to be conscious decisions by the photographer: deliberate attempts to position or juxtapose specific elements, signs of deliberate dodging and burning, uncommon choices of substrates, etc. When portraying natural scenes, I try to imagine what it sounded and smelled like to be there. Alas, in the medium of photography is not as conducive to such things as graceful gestures or fluid motions as some musical instruments, but then again there’s no reason why one can’t fill in these blanks by imagining the photographer at work.

In creating photographs, aiming for self expression, I implicitly hope they will possess such nuanced qualities as to be satisfying headphone images for viewers, prompting viewers to dedicate time to trying to unravel every last visual nuance. I do so knowing that this is not how photographs are usually viewed, especially in our attention-deficient age. Viewers today are often impatient, feeling that a photograph must win their attention with “impact,” rather than challenge them with any degree of complexity, and deliver its expressive “payload” instantly and intuitively, without need for closer examination or flights of imagination. Alas, my personality is such that I become bored quickly with things that are too simple. My brain thrives on complexity, and I lose interest when not intellectually challenged.

Whether it’s impact or some visual equivalent of a catchy tune, gaining viewers’ attention is only the first step to an expressive experience. You got their attention; now what? They opened their hearts and minds to you, you’ve established a channel of communication; now what do you “feed” them that they may find value in? I think it’s a good mindset for creative photographers to adopt: decide what you want to express first, then find some visual “hook” to get viewers interested so you can then hold their attention longer and tell a more complex story. I think that most photographers in fact do the exact opposite, seeking to grab momentary attention and then fail (or not even try) to deliver a deeper and more sustained experience beyond the initial impression.

Jazz legend Charlie Parker said, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” I feel the same about my photography: if I don’t “live it,” it won’t come out of my camera (or processing software, or printer), at least not in a way that is satisfying to me. After all, what I wish to express in my photographs emerges out of the way I experience my world: my close familiarity with my subjects and the pleasure I take in paying them close attention, sometimes for prolonged periods, striving to notice all the beauty they have to offer and whatever expressive purpose they may serve, both on initial impact and in their details and subtleties.

Closeness

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