Matters of Duration
by Christopher Haworth
In 2015 there were over a trillion photographs taken worldwide. More pictures are produced in a single day than in the history of the world prior to the advent of digital imaging. Coupled with the rise of free publishing and social media sites such as Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, this increase in the quantity of images and image-taking devices has contributed to a shift in the temporal nature of photography.
Photographs, for Susan Murray, (in her essay Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics) become less about the act of collecting "special or rarefied moments of domestic living", and more about the immediate, rather fleeting display of the small and the mundane. In photo-messaging and ‘meme’ culture as the photograph becomes a medium for instant conversation and dialogue it is increasingly transitory, while in Snapchat image becomes utterance, as photographs ‘die’ just moments after being seen. What persists across these cases is a sense of time compressed: of the lag between production, consumption, and disposal being reduced to zero.
Jez riley French’s photographic scores series is a compelling intervention in this sea of images. They invite the viewer to see them as conduits, representations, translations or spurs for sound – and this remediation has the effect of reversing some of the effects of our image-saturated culture. Where time in the age of the digital photograph is produced by gliding from one image to the next, French’s photos attempt to bring temporality into the experience of viewing. The images manufacture an experience of time through the visual evocation of sound and soundscapes.
French has been engaged in making photographic scores since 1982. In the czech scores (2007-8) we find time introduced quite literally, via the superimposition of musical stave-like bars across the surface of the images. The resulting image has a dual function: first as an affective medium for a performer to respond to, and second as a script for his or her musical action. In the latter, visual shapes are recast as symbolic notation that can be read sequentially like a graphical score.
If, in the czech scores, time is produced via the translation of natural forms into sonic symbols, then the scores for listening series attempt to evoke a different sense of temporality: a sense of lived, emplaced time. The scores are beautiful images, falling somewhere between landscape photography (#10) and abstract expressionism (#37). Yet the textual framings invite us to view them differently.
close to trees
listen until the air blankets the sound of
Rather than landscape or abstraction, the invitation to ‘listen’ to these images, or to use them as a medium to aid listening, evokes the concept of soundscape. soundscape. R Murray Schafer (The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World) defined the term to describe "any acoustic field of study... a musical composition, a radio program, or an acoustic environment". The soundscape concept is useful because it implies a point of audition and omniscience at the same time as it suggests physical spaces. It is itself a translation of a visual concept – that of landscape – to the auditory environment, but the analogy has some shortcomings. Schafer himself noted the inability of sound recording technologies to reproduce the instantaneous, exact impression of a soundscape in the manner of a photograph."The microphone samples details. It gives the close-up but nothing corresponding to aerial photography."
This weaving of concepts, sense modalities and media – from landscape to soundscape, eye to ear, camera to microphone – provides a useful means to understand French’s scores. It is a phonographic notion of soundscape capture that informs the composition of these photographs rather than a ‘photographic’ one corresponding to landscape. In score for listening #10, the juxtaposition of crisp foreground detail and a distant wash of trees set off a number of phonographic associations: the relation between a close-mic’d sound source and background noise in a field recording, perhaps, or the surface noise on a record and the sound waves that come out of the loudspeaker.Score #37 is similarly phonographic: its lines and dots evoke grooves and dust, while the instruction to read them as scripts to either ‘create’ or ‘perceive’ seems deliberately to evoke the phonograph’s dual function as both inscription and playback device.
Schafer rightly saw soundscapes as audible traces of the social conditions that produced them. His concept therefore encompassed a strong ethical responsibility: by attending to and studying soundscapes, we contemplate our own contribution to them. The soundscape of the world is therefore not "an indeterminate composition" over which we have no control, but one to which we the performers give "form and beauty". The question of whose aesthetic standards determine this responsibility is something we can disagree about however. Schafer, being a Romantic, says that the natural soundscape was thrown out of ‘balance’ (to use an audio engineering term) by the invasion of industrial civilisation. Recent scholars have said this is contradictory: espousing anti-urban nostalgia while at the same time exploiting the fruits of that culture in his use of high quality sound recording equipment.
Perhaps French’s scores provide a means to square the circle. By introducing the experience of duration into our consumption of images, via the mediation of phonography, they invite us to attend seriously to our mediated environment and consider our contribution to it – but without necessarily defaulting to a critique of the new sounds of modernity or a valorisation of pre-industrial civilisation. As score #26 shows, one can have both. Contemplating French’s remediated photographs, one is reminded of the words of the composer and sound artist Alvin Lucier: "I don’t think of technology as technology... I think of it as landscape... We’re all born into a landscape... and I’m just responding to the landscape of my time".