This article originally appeared in On Landscape Magazine in June of 2015.
Picking a favorite photograph is like selecting a favorite song, an impossible task if both photography and music have been significant parts of your life. They certainly have been for me. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a career in both, and the older I get the more I appreciate how interconnected they are.
Music can often generate visual imagery, either from memories, significant experiences, or associations we make subconsciously. I remember listening to an old song recently by one of my favorite bands. I was instantly transported to my bedroom where as a teenager I practiced playing the bass for hours every night, trying to recreate every sound I heard on my well-worn cassette tapes.
This is how I learned to play, by copying another musician note for note, until my fingers found the positions on my instrument without effort. I repeated this with all the music I liked until over time I began to internalize the mechanics, and could focus more on adding my interpretation. Slowly I began to understand the idea of having my own sound, that elusive thing called “style.”
When I transitioned to landscape photography ten years ago, I applied the same approach to learning this new medium. I tried to make images that looked similar to the images that captured my imagination. I knew that if I repeated the same process, I could learn to “copy” images from a technical perspective.
But that wasn’t enough, it was just a starting point. What I really wanted was to share how I felt inside. Interpreting the landscape became my primary focus and greatest challenge, one I still struggle with today.
My experience in music had taught me that what made a musical performance special, what gave it soul, was the musicians own emotional investment in his art and craft. It was the meaning behind the music, the purpose for making the music that made the biggest difference.
And that’s more important today than ever given the advancement of technology in photography. Infusing “meaning” in a photograph is still something that technology can not do; that is still the sole domain of the creative artist.
My epiphany came when I realized that landscape photography could also have soul, and elicit deep feelings inside. As I browsed image after image of similar subject matter or locations, I began to notice the images that were soulful to me and why. Most images were descriptive, but every once in a while there was an image where the subject matter faded into the distance, and what remained was an emotional energy that held my complete attention—it resonated inside.
One image in particular that had a big influence on me was “Evening Tidal Pool“ by David Muench. Here was a picture that was visual and musical, something I had never experienced before.
It captured the landscape in a way that was both literal and metaphorical, containing melody, harmony, rhythm; many of the qualities that make music such a powerful medium. The realization that there was a connection between the two, and that both could elicit the same emotions was exciting and profound.
I have still to realize the full potential of musical ideas as a photographer, and perhaps never will. But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming, where imagination is born. In the process I’ve learned to see more and think less. I’ve learned how light and shadows convey feelings similar to high and low frequencies in music. And that’s something you can take advantage of as well.
For example, ultra low frequencies are both heard and felt, engaging multiple senses and making a musical experience deeper and richer. I believe the same can be achieved with visual art such as painting and photography, and David’s photograph is a great example of that.
The deep blacks and shadows in the foreground are not simply underexposed areas but are integral to the energy and drama of the image. They create the foundation that supports the shapes and colors above, and provide the harmonic underpinning that makes the clarity and simplicity of the image so powerful. The melody, or in this case the main subject, builds to a visual crescendo, the highlights engaging the viewer’s imagination.
In short the image breaths, just like music flows.
I always hear music when I see this image even after a decade since I first saw it. Never have I wondered about the location, the technical aspects, the time of day. What is clear to me is that David Muench reacted to something inside of him, and the rest was an effortless exercise of his technical skills to capture the moment and tell a story.
That’s the single greatest lesson I learned from this image, and it’s the photographic approach I have tried to emulate and teach ever since.
Personal Note: I emailed David for permission to use his image and he graciously obliged. He also read the article and sent back the following abriged comments:
”Your article…really captures what I’ve tried to do in the majority of my images for my entire career. Nobody has really expressed it the way you have done here. I find it insightful and inspiring, and am moved by it.”
I share this for two reasons. First, because while comparing myself to David is pointless, understanding his process, his approach, his “why” put me on my own personal path, and that is how you achieve a sense of true purpose in your own work. Second, while I had never communicated with David before, his immediate willingness to share his image and offer his thoughts spoke volumes to me about his character, especially the single common trait I have always observed amongst all great nature photographers, humility. And I’m sure David would agree that’s the most wonderful gift that nature instills in us.