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Everything that's Most Important in Photography
I Learned from Classical Music

by Mark Schacter

I want a photograph to catch your eye, pull you in and make you linger.  I want the image to have impact, be memorable, and leave you with a desire to return and look again.

 A musical composer faces the same challenge – to write music that provokes and sustains listeners' attention.  So it should come as no surprise that good music and good photography have common features.

I was never much of a musician but I did study piano from when I was a young boy until my late teens. One of my favorite composers was Johann Sebastian Bach, the 18th century classical master whose music is a sublime expression of a type of composition called “counterpoint”.  Counterpoint also works well as an approach to composing photographs, an idea I will illustrate with five photographs.

 But before doing that I want to put the question of composition into context. Success in producing a photograph that attracts and holds your interest is outside my control because your response is a product of your nervous system and brain and therefore beyond my direct reach. But there are some things I can control that will influence your response, such as (the list is familiar to any photographer): 

  • the subject of the photograph;
  • the composition of the subject and related elements in the frame;
  • exposure settings (shutter speed and aperture); and
  • adjustments in (digital or analog) post-production.

Among these, composition – the position of visual elements within the frame, and the relationship of each visual element to every other one – is the critical factor. A poorly composed shot lacks impact even if it is perfectly exposed. Ditto for a poorly composed photograph of an interesting subject. On the other hand, a subject without intrinsic interest can be made interesting through good composition. And no amount of post-production can rescue an image with major compositional defects. I can fix exposure errors with image-editing software or in a darkroom, but can't repair weak composition (except in odd cases where composition can be salvaged through cropping). Composition is what makes or breaks a photograph.

Which brings me to counterpoint. In music it's when two or more distinct and equally important musical lines – multiple “tunes” or “themes” -- happen at the same time. A familiar example is when people perform a round. Everyone sings the same tune, but different groups begin at different times. “Competing” independent musical parts occur simultaneously. The effect is complex, rich and satisfying. (To hear a brief example of classical counterpoint composed by J.S. Bach and performed on piano by Glenn Gould, perhaps the greatest interpreter of Bach, click here.)

How does the idea of counterpoint translate from musical to image composition? Instead of musical lines or themes think of visual ones. In contrapuntal music, your ear keeps wanting to jump from one leading line (“melody”) to another. (See if that happens to you when listening to the clip referenced above.)  A similar thing happens in a contrapuntal photograph: your eye wants to jump from one dominant line to another, and back again.  Whether in music or photographic images, competing, independent thematic lines excite the senses by creating harmony out of complexity.

 

“Railway Yard”, Delta, British Columbia © Mark Schacter 2012)

Consider Image 1. One of the dominant visual elements, the multiple railway lines, leads the eye into the frame as the rails swoop in from the left. Your eye  notices another major theme: the curving furrows of the field that mimic but are independent of and distinct from the railway lines. The slashing diagonal of the shrubbery divides the two thematic areas. After having noticed all this, your eye might next linger over a third visual theme, the repeated vertical lines of the power poles. Finally your eye might be pulled back to and rest for a while on a fourth major theme, the parallel lines of railway cars.

 

Baggage Carts”, Calgary, Alberta © Mark Schacter 2012 

In Image 2 the repeated lines and curves of the airport baggage carts attracts the eye. This major visual theme is underscored (literally) by the yellow paint line of the curb, and mimicked by the four strong dark vertical lines at the top of the frame.  A second major visual theme – both competing with and complementing the baggage carts – is the hanging flower basket poised above the carts like a starburst in a fireworks show. The tension between these two dominant themes is what makes the photograph work; take one of them away and the image loses its impact.

 

Ocean View”, White Rock, British Columbia © Mark Schacter 2012

Image 3 has three dominant visual lines. One is the strong vertical orientation of the entire photograph. (The orientation is vertical in two senses: (i) the framing is in portrait format and (ii) the apartments rise, one seemingly atop the other, up the side of a hill.) The second theme, in visual tension with the first, is the horizontal lines – repeated and staggered in vertical space – of the many roofs.  The third theme is the multiple rectangles – staggered in both vertical and horizontal space – of the individual apartment units. The horizontal orientation of each rectangle competes with the overall vertical orientation of the image. Instead of creating a visual cacophony, these multiple visual lines – each strong and complete in its own right – inter-relate in ways that create a harmonious whole.

 

Cathedral Church of St. James”, Toronto, Ontario © Mark Schacter 2012

Image 4 has two strong themes. The diagonal line of the man and the two dogs runs perpendicular to the diagonal line of the cathedral. (Within the cathedral itself is a series of vertical lines created by the windows and buttresses, a secondary feature that adds complexity to the left-to-right diagonal line of the cathedral.)

 

Iron Ore Dock”, Marquette, Michigan © Mark Schacter 2011

Image 5 is the most simple and stark of the examples. Here, two strong visual themes compete for attention: the sweeping left-to-right line of the derelict iron-ore loading dock, and the rhythmic staccato of the tightly-spaced vertical lines of the dock's internal structure. The sensation is unsettling to the eye; you want to look laterally and vertically at the same time – an effect similar to the energizing sensory confusion created by contrapuntal music.

In discussing these examples I haven't referred to the subject of the photographs. That's because “subject” - what a photograph is supposed to depict – is distinct from (though intertwined with) a photograph's composition.  Any subject – a person, a structure, an event, an idea, etc. - can be composed (literally “put together”) in a variety of ways that may be more, or less, appealing to the eye. (Similarly, a writer can present a given story in different ways and a painter can depict a given subject in different ways.) My argument is that image composition modelled on musical counterpoint – through use of multiple visual themes that compete with and complement each other – can give the subject of a photograph energy and movement that attract and retain viewers' attention.

October, 2012  


 

Mark Schacter's next book of photographs, Great Lakes Portraits, will be published later this year by Fifth House. He is currently working on Houses of Worship (Fifth House), a book of photographs to be published in 2013. His first book of photographs, Roads (Fifth House) was published in 2010 and is available from booksellers. Mark Schacter's work can be seen at www.luxetveritas.net.

Filed Under:  
Essays   

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Concepts: Johann Sebastian Bach, Counterpoint, Music, Photography, Fugue, Theme

Entities: Fifth House, nervous system, confusion, windows, Michael Reichmann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Mark Schacter, the greatest interpreter

Tags: photographs, visual, image, visual themes, vertical lines, counterpoint, visual elements, music, Fifth House, diagonal line, musical, major visual theme, visual lines, musical lines, railway lines, vertical orientation, dominant visual lines, Mark Schacter, contrapuntal music, baggage carts, major theme, important musical lines, multiple visual lines, different ways, tightly-spaced vertical lines, dark vertical lines, strong vertical orientation, dominant visual elements, multiple railway lines, overall vertical orientation, strong visual themes, multiple visual themes, Johann Sebastian Bach, left-to-right diagonal line, century classical master, major compositional defects, independent musical parts, sweeping left-to-right line, airport baggage carts, derelict iron-ore loading