A multi-disciplinary journey in music, sound, and field recording.

Phonography and Photography

Posted: March 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, theory

The deeper I get into field recording (or, in the words of some, a “phonography“), the more the parallels between it and how I approach photography comes into focus. I feel that the differences between these media, while significant, are outnumbered by the similarities.

Photographs are single moments in time and sound is a stream of realtime stimuli. They reach different senses. One could argue that cinematography has more in common with audio recording, in terms of perception of the media over time, but I think that’s more in how it is consumed than how it’s captured.

I actually find that the physical activities and workflow of field recording, specifically, is conducted far more like nature photography. The two activities are also among the few digital creative endeavors that actually can yield some degree of exercise!

For me, the parallels between field recording and photography are most visible in fieldwork, temporal abstraction, recontextualization, and introspection.

Fieldwork – that is, the act of gathering media – is where the parallels are the most immediately obvious. One gears up, heads out the door, gathers, and returns. Sound recordists use the same terminology of  photographers and cinematographers, in that they “shoot” audio, and this seems quite  natural. We’re all looking for moments in time to capture. Photographers chase the perfect light, phonographers chase the perfect timbre. Photographers want clean separation of foreground and background, just as phonographers seek optimal signal to noise ratios. Both shoot elements from different perspectives to gain different textural or emotional qualities: closeups, wide shots, overheads, and so forth. Gear-wise, photographers want fast, sharp lenses and low-noise sensors, while phonographers (usually) want flat-response microphones and low-noise preamps. (The parallels with hunting run deep, as well…maybe there’s another whole article behind the prevalence of men as field recordists and women as Foley artists…)

Temporal abstraction is what photography is all about: Ripping fractions of a second out of the timestream and displaying it in stasis for deeper consideration. Now, sound must be experienced in real time, but it’s still removed from its original timeline and placed in a new time frame. It might have taken me hours of wrestling with an object to wrest out that perfect sound, but all one might hear is a single thump, creak, or howl. Conversely, one tiny sound can be convolved into minutes’ worth of ambience. Audio can also be replayed at any time, or repeated infinitely…editing, of course, heightens temporal abstraction to a great degree. In this way, both photography and phonography extract evocative moments out of time and display it for more attention than those moments would get under normal observation, and this has a huge impact on the final observer.

Which brings us nicely to recontextualization. Having removed imagery and sound from their natural environments and placing them in the home, gallery, or computer screen/speaker, photography and phonography both excel at removing a lot of context around the circumstances of their capture, their initial existence. This recontextualization, therefore, can give them new meaning. A photograph of a dirty window may become a texture I used on a 3D object. The sound of twisting wicker, pitched down, may sound like an ancient sailing vessel at sea. A commonplace image or sound, taken out of context, can be either comforting or disturbing. In fact, fantastic sound design based on real sounds (as opposed to synthesized sound), a la Ben Burtt, utterly relies on recontextualization to work. If it didn’t, when we heard the sound of the fell beasts from the Lord of the Rings films, our suspension of disbelief would be crushed by the fact that we’d recognize the sound as a donkey (its original source). Severing the ties between what we’d recognize in context and what something looks, feels, or sounds like out of context is important for both media.

Finally, this brings us to introspection, in the sense of the artist him/herself. For what I shoot, visually and aurally, photography and phonography are often done in solitude. This can make these acts very inwardly-focused. When working with a team of people is wonderful, offering cross-pollination of ideas and creative collaboration. However, this isn’t always conducive to focusing on being in the moment, which leads to its own creative possibilities. But when capturing media in solitude, I focus much more on how things make me feel. It becomes a very different experience, and often quite meditative. The photojournalism aphorism for this is “Just f/8 and be there.” It doesn’t necessarily produce better work, but it certainly reconnects me to my environment in reinvigorating ways. My eyes, ears, and mind tend to stay a bit more open. It’s the ability, in phonography, to “Limit to -12dB and be there.”

For me, there’s no dissonance between doing photography and gathering sounds, even in the same outing. The similarities around the highest-level practices and potential results of one has even started to influence the other. Lenses are microphones, field recorders are camera bodies. Sound is image, once it’s in the mind’s eye/ear.

And that’s the only place – the gray matter inside the viewer/listener – that any of this matters in the end.

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4 Comments on “Phonography and Photography”

  1. 1 Matt said at 11:39 pm on March 25th, 2010:

    Wow. That’s a comparison with fantastic writing. I’ve been following for a while now, and I’m a big fan of the stories and expeditions. Keep up the great work.

  2. 2 Andrew said at 1:42 am on March 28th, 2010:

    Nathan, this is such a well written article. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  3. 3 Nathan said at 6:04 pm on April 1st, 2010:

    Glad you both enjoyed it. Thanks so much for the comments!

  4. 4 Oranse Taylor said at 8:31 pm on September 30th, 2010:

    Great piece! Ive been playing with cameras forever, I have recently been trying to lift up the audio quality in my fishing videos. Im in Fort Lauderdale so I got a Zoom H2 and began shooting audio of the ocean and related waterways, beaches, boat motors, and seagulls. Im sure its all cliche, but Im just starting out, and thankfuly I found your site. I’m reading and listening to everything!

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