A Tale of Three (Musical) Photographs

Some years ago in a portfolio review with the well-known photographer Sean Kernan (whose photographs of trees I totally love), he commented that he could tell from my work that I’m a musician. If that’s true, then it’s something that operates at some level deep inside me–I’ve never thought consciously about making a connection between those two creative threads of mine.

That said, by sheer coincidence–no, really!–over the past year or so I’ve titled three of my photographs after musical compositions that I happen to admire a lot, and I’m here to share them and tell you about them. First, let me repeat that this was quite coincidental; I never set out to create a “series” of images bearing the titles of favorite musical works. And for two of the three, the titles were after the fact; only with the third did I deliberately set out to produce an image to fit a title. More about that when I get to it.

Serenity

The first one is titled Serenity. I think it speaks for itself. This a slow-motion blue-hour image from the Rhode Island coast. Interestingly, I first thought to call it Rhapsody in Blue, but then decided that Serenity was a better fit. The title comes from a piece by the Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo (now living in New York), a setting of the Christmas liturgical text O Magnum Mysterium, and it movingly conveys the serene mood conjured up by most depictions of the Nativity of Christ. Recorded by the vocal ensemble Tenebrae, this work is included on an album titled simply Ola Gjeilo.

Unconquered

The second image did start out with a different title–Lighthouse Battered by Waves or something like that. Again, taken on the Rhode Island coast but in very different atmospheric conditions from Serenity. But then when the picture was to be exhibited in a show, I thought it deserved a more evocative than literal title–but what? What does one call a lighthouse that’s still standing despite enduring everything that ultra-strong wind and waves can hurl at it? Sitting at the computer with the image on my screen, I had my radio turned to my favorite classical music station, New York’s Capital Region’s WMHT, and I heard the announcer introduce a tone poem that Michael Torke wrote to commemorate the 50th anniversary of SPAC — the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in New York (Mr Torke has strong ties to the musical scene in the Capital Region and surrounding areas in New York State). Saratoga was the site of the defeat in 1777 of the British army under General Burgoyne, which proved to be an important turning point of the American Revolution as well as an inspiration for this piece that Mr Torke composed for SPAC. He titled it Unconquered. As soon as the announcer mentioned it, I knew I had my title for the photograph of the Sakonnet Lighthouse. Unconquered has been recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra — a great recording of my favorite work by a composer whose music always radiates irrepressible joy.

Mysterious Mountain

Finally, an image titled after a work by a 20th-century composer, the American-Armenian Alan Hovhaness, and the one image of the three for which, in one sense, the title came before the image. This is Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain. As with Unconquered, this one began with my listening to WMHT, this time on an afternoon when the indefatigably imaginative and resourceful Rob Brown was hosting. He played a recording of this, my favorite composition by Hovhaness, a fact that I then mentioned to him in an email exchange. Having seen many of my photographs over the years, he suggested that I produce a picture with that title as a companion piece to another — well, creative — image of trees that I had processed to look like a line of wavy dancers.

It took me longer to search through my files for a suitable photograph of a mountain than actually to process the image once I located a suitable one, and after two false starts I found a photo of Mt. Washington, taken on my most recent (2019) visit to New Hampshire. I had already processed the picture in a representational way and started with that rather than with the original raw image. Fortunately the picture was from the fall foliage season, so the bright colors were in evidence. I applied two Topaz filters to it and tweaked the settings until I got what I wanted. What had been bright autumn leaves now suggest, at least to my Wagnerian mind, the magic fire that Wotan puts around the mountain in Die Walkuere to ensure that only the greatest of heroes will successfully brave the fire to win Brunnhilde, who is asleep on the mountain top.

And no, I don’t intend to inaugurate a series of musically titled artworks. If the inspiration comes to me when I’m looking for a title, then fine. Who knows, maybe I will eventually produce a Rhapsody in Blue.

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