Some people think of them as scruffy beer guts with tattoos and long hair but what rock guitarists really have is an artistic instinct that most photographers lack. In fact, could it be that all photographers need beer guts, tattoos and long hair to improve their craft?
Probably not, but I’m quite convinced that learning the guitar would help.
Not convinced ? Let me make my point 🙂
Photographers fall in the same gear acquisition syndrome as HiFi nuts. There’s always something better in the shop, there’s always something greater in the mag.
And choices are very often made in the same way: a reviewer (with fancy lab equipment and test ancillaries worth several fortunes) writes an article with eye-poppingly good graphs, circuit analysis, component detail, whatever is needed to make us open our wallets, and we always fall into the trap.
But HiFi ain’t art. Don’t get me wrong, some manufacturers are creative artists, but the HiFi world in general, not. Quite the opposite, in fact.
HiFi is all about recreating a sound with the greatest possible fidelity. A lot of measurement is implied. The most linear components are needed, the cleanest circuits, the lowest distortions. HiFi is engineering.
Electric guitar making and guitar playing couldn’t be more different from HiFi.
When creating a tube amp for HiFi, tubes are selected for their linearity and used in their least distorted range. Guitar almost take the opposite approach. Distortion is not only tolerated but actively sought. Blues and rock guitarists very rarely use their amps in the “clean” mode that simply amplifies the sound from the Guitar’s pick-ups. They generally prefer the crunchy, distorted zone. Not for the sake of entropy, but in search of a pleasant sound!
Beauty trumps fidelity. Emotion trumps rigor.
And this has profound implications, not only in the R&D departments of manufacturers but also – most importantly – in the jamming garages of suburbia.
Learning to play the guitar involves learning chords, moves, picking, fretting and as many other boring techniques as most other musical instruments. But what is encouraged by all teachers is to play songs. Basic finger strengthening exercises and memorization techniques are inevitable for absolute beginners but, as soon as conceivably possible, students are encouraged to play the songs of their favourite bands and replicate their sound.
Sound is what qualifies a guitarist as much as technique. The Yardbirds sounded different with Jeff Beck than with Clapton, for instance. And no one would mistake Mark Knopfler and Jimmy Hendrix.
And guitars / amps are sought out not for their exquisite measurements in a lab but for the quality of their sound. When Les Paul was designing guitars for Gibson, Fender stole his thunder by creating a less polished design that gave the world a different sound. When Fender were thinking of retiring the Stratocaster, that had fallen out of favour, along came Jimmy Hendrix, with a sound that no one had heard before. Sales of the Strat went through the roof.
Today, manufacturers such as Paul Reed Smith work hard trying to produce a high-quality alternative to the Gibson / Fender duopoly. And tiny operations such as Chapman Guitars take care of the needs of guitarists wanting an even more distinctive sound at a very reasonable cost.
Then, there’s “Hot Rodding”, which is all about changing components on a guitar to tailor its sound to your personal tastes and playing technique.
And that’s just guitars. I haven’t even started talking about amplifiers, amp heads, pedals, cables …
All this to say one thing: the guitar world is far more obsessed with aesthetics and finding a personal style than with lab results.
… but they think like HiFi enthusiasts.
Good photographers have at least one of two qualities: a strong world view and a strong personal style.
And beginner photographers most often begin on the right path, inspired by a master or simply photographs found on forums such as 500px. But early along the learning path they fall prey to a world that is far less positive than the guitar world.
Musicians, and guitarists in particular, think in positive terms: what can I add to my sound and technique ?
Photographers too often think in negatives: what gear can I buy to remove aberrations and obstacles ? A faster AF so as not to miss that fast-moving object, higher ISO capabilities so as not to miss the low-light opportunities, high quality lenses so as not to suffer from chromatic aberration or vignetting … Sound or, rather, look, plays second fiddle to what corporate marketing has convinced us all is the really important aspect of photography: fidelity.
Soon, personal expression gives way to conformity and this is why photographers gather in millions around the Eiffel Tower every year and so few visit locations offering far more opportunities, follow rules of thirds and other brainwashing fallacies and generally fall into the trap laid by the megabrands, the media feeding on their advertising and the peer pressure of social media voting.
How do you recover that lost creativity?
I strongly believe in the guitarist approach of imitation.
Buy books rather than magazines. Buy prints. Visit museums and exhibitions and don’t read the garbage that no one understands. Just ask your self what you like and why. Then try to imitate what you like. Analyse the obvious (subject, time of day) before moving to the more complex (type of camera, type of lens, aperture, post-processing …) Getting the basics right will then allow to work on the details until you feel like improvising rather than imitating.
Find yourself, the gear will follow.
Now, if Nick Zinner or Chris Stein are reading this, maybe they can share their opinion? 😉
UPDATE: Thanks to reader PaulB, who pointed me to Ralph Gibson’s stunning photographic work, I am adding this video to the article. It’s an official Leica video, so a tad salesy, but the photography and insights from Ralph Gibson are a free masterclass. Plus, who doesn’t dream of an M Monochrome ? Thanks Paul !
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