Can You Hear a Street Photo?

The short answer is no. Of course you can’t hear a street photo. It’s entirely silent, unless you give it an audio soundtrack.

You see: I could never be a politician. I’d answer the interviewers’ questions directly and truthfully. “Are you going to raise taxes?” “Yes, if we feel like it.”

Silence is one the greatest qualities of the still photo. Every point the picture makes — every joy or sadness it brings to the viewer — has to be achieved soundlessly. Even if you show an image of a screeching cormorant, or a brass band, or a nuclear explosion, the sound is notable only by its absence.

Schubert’s Babbling Brook
Last night I was watching (on YouTube) the pianist András Schiff give a master class on playing Franz Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major. He pointed out that the left hand needed to sustain the tempo of the “babbling brook” which never pauses as the young pianist was obliging it to do. “The brook has to stay in its flow,” said Schiff.

Schubert often evokes images of the country. Wind, birdsong, the sounds of small animals scampering through the undergrowth — he makes us think of all these things and we can imagine many of them visually when they occur.

It appears that the auditory sense can trigger a visual response, albeit an imaginative one, but not vice versa. We see Schubert’s scampering animals in our “mind’s eye” when we listen to the music, but we don’t hear the rumble of thunder when we look at a landscape photo taken in a storm. I think there’s a simple explanation for this phenomenon.

Music is better able to represent particular subjects in sound because it can be very specific in its imitation. Just listen to Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from his opera “Peter Grimes.” You almost have to blink when he evokes dazzling sunlight striking the water at dawn — and the storm sequence nearly induces a feeling of seasickness later in the piece.

The Silence of Images
By contrast, a photo is very unspecific. The first photograph I ever took was of the Coldstream Guards’ marching band. If I looked at it today I could not recall what the musicians sounded like, or tell you what they were playing. I’ve lost the print I made at the time, but I can still remember that one of the drummers seemed to be wearing a dead leopard. To me, the image was notable for the absence of a snarl — but I couldn’t hear that either.

I’ve tried playing with the idea of representing sound, but nothing worked until I took the featured image (above). In the background you can see a women’s choir called “Funky Voices” performing at a local street festival. In the foreground a woman with red hair is holding the musical director’s dog, which appears to be listening intently — and silently — to the sound.

When the music is good we listen in silence. That’s the point of the picture. The photo, unable to evoke sound, has to show a person and a dog in silent listening mode. It works because the dog probably doesn’t understand the music but appears to be hypnotised by it. If there’s one false note you feel he might start howling.

Incidentally, I know the dog belongs to the musical director because I contacted Funky Voices to get permission to use the photo in a competition called Essence of Essex. I didn’t win. The prize went to a photo of a plastic hamburger. Somehow, I think the judges didn’t really “get” what I was trying to do. I don’t normally subscribe to the “labour theory of value” (something is more valuable if it’s more laborious to make), but, frankly, plastic hamburgers are way too easy in comparison to silent music.

Deeper Into Silence
Any exploration of the role of sound in street photography simply leads us deeper into silence.

My photo of a woman snoozing next to a sculpture of a banjo player is slightly surreal. Has she been lulled to sleep by the man’s playing? Or is she listening to the non-existent music in silence? No, she just appears to be in the presence of sound, which helps to bring the sculpture to life. The musician seems to glow with energy (when in fact he’s suffering the halo effect from boosted shadows).

The banjo player (I’m calling his instrument a banjo but it might be a zhongruan or some other oriental variation) is entirely silent because there are no strings to his instrument. His pose is sedate and undramatic, a far cry from the gyrations of popular music.

Jazz and rock ‘n roll musicians are more photogenic than classical artists partly because they move more violently when they play — and the camera freezes the movement. Likewise the camera also eliminates sound. We don’t miss its absence because we’re compensated by being able to scrutinise the frozen movement.

Yet if you think about it, there’s always something poignant about the absence of sound, especially when someone in the image is playing an instrument. Can you hear the guitarist, practising in the street in my photo below? No, and the cartoon characters on his shoulder strap can sing as loud as they like, but you’ll never hear them either.

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