Recently, I re-read Greg Milner’s book “Perfecting Sound Forever” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). The book tells the history of audio recording from the days of Edison’s drum-recorders to the digital age. Again, I found the text eminently readable and interesting. What struck me most this time, though, were the similarities to the history of photography. Let me expand on that.
With every technological advancement in audio recording, the inventors claimed the result to be more life-like, or having higher fidelity, than the previous method. Already Edison, for example, claimed that a live performance and his recordings were indistinguishable (having still being exposed to 78 rpm shellac disks, I find this claim quite astonishing, given the crackles and hisses I remember). Since the 1950s and the invention of stereo recording, the term HiFi (for high fidelity) has been used for a whole range of technologies from record players to digital audio players. All the technological advancements since Edison have, however, one thing in common: each created its own backlash in form of a community of detractors. Such detractors (who at some time started to call themselves “audiophiles”) claimed that some very essential aspect of sound or music was lost in new technologies. And thus we see recurring renaissances of the vinyl record, which otherwise has been superseded on the market place by first the CD and then digital audio files (like MP3).
Likewise, quite a few claim that essential elements in photography have been lost in the path from wet plates (and large cameras with bellows) to film and, finally, digital photography. The newest development of computational photography will for sure have the same effect and, correspondingly, “alternative” ways of photographing (i.e. using old technologies) are used widely, especially in art circles.
This all seemed to me quite curious and I wondered what is happening here. If someone claims fidelity of anything, as critically inclined, enlightened individuals we of course should ask: fidelity to what? What are these technologies supposed to record and what is the, let say, essence of music or, in case of photography, the subject? And this is where we then soon get into trouble because concepts get so elusive. Traditionally, music was always performed in rooms and the acoustic properties of the room were part of the sound. But there were also coughing, rustling and other noises coming from the audience (or think of Glen Goulds humming and moaning performances). Still, I think the audio engineers didn’t try to achieve fidelity by including these side noises of a performance – and in the digital age they even excluded the performance room as a parameter. Famously, Ansel Adams lugged extremely large and heavy cameras up slippery mountain slopes to detect that the best photo of Half Dome in Yellowstone Park was made when using a modifying red filter on the lens – a clear act against fidelity.
When reading Milner’s book it becomes clear that an underlying theme is that engineers tried to optimise an acoustic (or visual) signal, while the sceptics perceived a diminished experience. Underlying this strange phenomenon is maybe a misconception. Some seem to believe that we hear and see with our ears and eyes only, thus a stronger or clearer signal alone leads to a better experience. I think, however, it is more correct to say that we hear and see with our brains, which will distinguish patterns, extract or inject meaning, and intermingle the signal with emotions, memories and other mental and chemical functions. In this the sceptics might be right: experience doesn’t necessarily equal signal fidelity.
Still, I was quite struck when I first (in the early 1980s) heard a CD recording of Dire Straits’s “Sultans of Swing” in a record shop in my home town. From then on, I converted my music collection to CD and never looked back to the crackling and hissing of vinyl records. I also admit that I rather listen to music in my own place and find especially live (authentic?) rock concerts unbearable for their loudness.
I also can appreciate the advantages of film photography and the gentle roll-off of highlights in film. In addition, I would immediately agree that photography should be something tangible and not only an image on a screen. That is why I still devote so much time and effort to the art of printing. But some of the negative consequences of new technologies, like the loudness wars in audio recording, which started in the 1990s to make radio stations pop from car speakers, and the proliferation of garishly over-coloured and -manipulated imagery one can observe on the internet are just that: excesses. They will, I believe, disappear or turn into more creative, human expressions of meaning. Of course, as Milner’s book also shows, every time technology evolves, our tastes (and the new “normal”) do as well and the very meaning of the word “Music” is different today than during Edison’s times.
Ultimately, Milner’s book served for me as a reminder that photography is not about sharper pictures or “cleaner” signals. Too clean and polished, on the contrary, can be pointless, tiring and unsustainable in the long term, if it is not infused with meaning and an emotional connection to the very plight of being human in a real world. But to infuse pictures with meaning, whether emotional or intellectual, is the task of the photographer and relatively independent of technology.
A long time ago I wrote here about sea shells and stories. In the picture on the top, the same happened: once I saw the little ice hedgehog on its rock looking out on the flood, I couldn’t “un-see” it anymore. The story, the pattern, the possible meanings took on a life of their own. While I maintain that we should not see everything through the human lens because if we do so, we miss the true stories the trees, rocks, clouds and nature in general have to tell and we easily misinterpret our role in all of this, I do recognise that everything we do in art in the end should still feel organic, humane and touching.
The photographer is not (and has never) just recorded a signal; photographing is like making music, not like recording it (to borrow again from Ansel Adams). Meaning is an elusive concept and can only be transmitted from human to human by effort and often circumventing our “normal” ways of perception and by stimulating our inquisitiveness and emotions.
P.S.: Just as I finished this article, I came over a TED talk by British designer Richard Seymour, where he stresses that beauty is an emotion, not a thought. How he does that is quite brilliant and I can highly recommend to take the 15min to watch this – it seems to me quite related to what I wrote here.