Half-week homework: Musical instruments

Today marks an unusual coincidence in musical history. 63 years ago, in 1956, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins walked into Sun Records and had an impromptu jam session. Only Elvis was already a major star, but the rest weren’t far behind. Happily, a savvy technician thought to record the session and it was subsequently released as the curious document that is “Million Dollar Quartet. ”

To compound the unlikely concurrence, December 4th would also be the day that a 52 year old Frank Zappa rode the black starship into the void 37 years later, as evening cooled in the fall of 1993. The sun may look normal today, but our position relative to it is fraught with both a sense of explosive potential for creation and a somber understanding of the impending doom awaiting even the most vigorous, disruptive force imaginable.

In light of that eerie radiation, then, your job as a creative person on this planet this week is to photograph musical instruments. Once you’ve done so, share the results with your comrades-in-gear! Upload your favorite shots to our Facebook page or on Instagram tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework. Make those images sing, so to speak, then let them ring.

Stay home if you’ve got some of your own, or go on the hunt at concerts or homes of friendly musicians. Both sides have their own challenges: trying to photograph your own instruments is convenient vis-a-vis commute time, but if you’re musically as well as visually inclined, your photographic process might be a bit slowed-down thanks to the distraction provided by your subjects!

Either way, you’re certain to find gorgeous models. The emotional resonance of music combined with the automatic increase of attention paid to aesthetics in the craft of objects meant for life-enrichment rather than sustenance means that the majority are not merely work-horses—attention has been paid to many, many details! Easily-identifiable portraits of instruments, like those above, are perfectly fine (and can make for excellent gifts when printed nicely), but in the interests of expanding your creative mind, let’s consider a few more possible ways to approach this challenge.

Suggestion 1: experiment with varying magnification of detail. The effect of a picture so zoomed-in on a tiny detail that it’s almost unrecognizable is very different from a detail shot that still includes plenty of grounding information, even if a wide aperture is used to narrow the depth of field to a very thin slice. (To get as close as I did in the ultra-detailed versions, you’ll need a macro lens. I used the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS, but there are quality options available for every mount.) Either way, your concentration should be on the form of the object itself, reducing it to lines, shapes, and textures rather than getting distracted by what it “is.” Everyone may or may not already know what it “is,” but in this exercise, you’re trying to redefine the “it” on which we’re focusing!

Suggestion 2: focus on the human element. Make your photo of (and/or through) an object tell your viewer less about the object itself and more about the craftsmanship that goes into its use or construction. After all, the emotional impact of music would never exist without the people involved in its creation! A really great photo following this path should function almost like a music box, spontaneously generating a melody in the mind of the viewer.

Suggestion 3: set the aesthetic philosophies of the previous two head to head. As a general rule, photographs tend to be driven more by either pure aesthetic design or by emotional impact. Try to get two photos of the instrument, one aimed at the eye and one aimed at the heart. The closer you can make the two while maintaining a strong distinction of spirit, the better your skills!

Suggestion 4: undermine the whole concept! We’ll call this the Zappa method. Examine your instrument of choice from an angle or distance that would never be seen under “normal” use conditions. Deconstructing gestalts into component forms is a joy, as you may have experienced while toying with suggestion one, and placing your digital eye somewhere your real eye would never be can be even more effective than focusing intensely on visible details at decontextualizing images—as well as, more importantly, recontextualizing them as unfiltered art.

Do you have more thoughts on the best ways to make visual art of the tools used to make aural art? Share your tips, success stories, or philosophical treatises in the comments below! Otherwise, I look forward to seeing your art on our Facebook page or on Instagram tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework, as I mentioned above. Happy shooting!

Even if you have to make a mess of your wife’s desk…

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