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Great music, great photography: same reason?

May 11, 2010
The Wailin' Jennys

The Wailin' Jennys: Nicky Mehta, Heather Masse, Ruth Moody

I’m starting this with a bit of a tangent. This past Sunday in Calgary’s Knox United Church, I heard a great concert put on by Winnipeg-based group The Wailin’ Jennys. I’m quite a fan of their albums, and was eager to hear them live. Well, my anticipation was satisfied! This Juno Award-winning trio of voices is Nicky Mehta, Heather Masse and Ruth Moody, backed up by their own acoustic instruments and the superb work of sideman Jeremy Penner on fiddle & mandolin.

The group achieves an impressive blend. Pure vocals with rich, layered textures weave together with the instruments, and nary a distraction. They play across a range of styles including bluegrass, jazz, Celtic and folk, creating a set with their own stamp on every song, whether originals or covers. The result is evocative and captivating. One of my favorite Jennys songs, Arlington, was spine tingling — in a good way! I definitely recommend checking out their music.

So — to the topic of this blog. In any art form, the artist is hoping to interpret something about the world in a way that resonates with the audience. Music and photography obviously are very different forms. But I’m a photographer, not a musician, so I got to thinking about how this wonderful concert might illustrate something about my chosen medium. Without trying to stretch analogies to the breaking point, one key goal seems to be the same — harmony.

In addition to showcasing specific subjects, art is full of many techniques; photography is no exception. Even more so with the advent of digital, where work in the digital darkroom can employ a myriad of tools & techniques, and for some photographers may consume more time than is spent framing the subject with the camera. (Frequently true for me!) But one of my goals is visual harmony. What I’m trying to accomplish is to seamlessly blend in-camera and post-processing technique alike, to create a final result that stands on its own. I’m not really looking for people to pick out individual bits & pieces — “hey, look at that corner-to-corner sharpness!” Or “wow, look at that cool HDR processing!” Just as musicians, I imagine, are not looking for the listener to pick out specific bits of instrumental or mixing work so much as they’re trying to make an impression with the song.

That’s not to say that technique is unimportant, because mastering the tools of the craft is definitely essential. But the mastery is used in service to the result — the art itself. As composers, we are blending the pieces into what should be a whole, not just an assemblage of interesting bits. As Ansel Adams put it, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” If I’m composing the image well, not just applying techniques, then hopefully everything creates harmony.

Those are some of my thoughts as I consider how a different art form can inform my photographic work. What about you? Do you seek inspiration from other artists, perhaps ones who work with different forms of expression?

And now, I’m going off to listen to some more Wailin’ Jennys…

Many Paths / One Route, Lake Koocanusa

Many Paths / One Route, Lake Koocanusa

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