The Sound and the Image

Photo by Jim Austin, ​Nikon D810, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 VR

It’s not surprising that many people, like me, love nice cameras and good stereo gear. In my worse moments, I attribute this to mere consumerism: We love expensive stuff and the thrill of buying something new, whether for reproducing music or creating visual images. In my better moments, it’s clear to me that there’s more than that to this common taste for audio and photography, and more to the hobby of so-called perfectionist audio.

One commonality: we like well-made machines. There’s beauty in finely wrought devices, whatever their intended use. We can’t claim artisanal credit—we didn’t make them—but there’s satisfaction in using them, pride in owning then, and real pleasure in collecting them.

Of the visual arts, photography is the most objective, the most documentary. Sure, even photographers who work in a straightforward way—who press the shutter button and capture whatever’s in front of the lens—exercise control over the images they reproduce. Taking a good photograph is a personal act—a creative act. But usually the core image is drawn from what’s around us. Mostly, photographers create by recording.

Cameras and audio systems have that in common: Both are involved in the (re)production of sensory experience. I surround the re in reproduction with postmodern parentheses to indicate that there is, in this copying of experience, some creativity: in reproduction, there’s production. Cameras and audio equipment enter at different phases in that process—our audio systems are more akin to printmaking studios than to cameras—but if sound engineers deserve more credit for what emerges from our systems and into our listening rooms than we do, we audiophiles can at least claim some of the credit for assembling systems that sound the way we want them to.

But there are still deeper, more meaningful connections between these two pursuits of consumerism and art. Both audio and photography are documentary—both are about recording the real world in the pursuit of sensory experience. Both are about technologically mediated art.

I once rejected photography as something I wanted to pursue because I thought success was too closely tied to the quality of the gear. This may go against conventional wisdom, but my experience since has reinforced that conviction. There’s a hardware analogy in audio, of course: when recording, buy the best microphones you can afford.

I’ve since come around to enjoying photography, not least because I can now afford better lenses. I still don’t play in the Leica/Hasselblad league, but I can take out my full-frame Sony mirrorless body and a 21mm Zeiss lens—not as expressive as a Leica system, perhaps, but surely more accurate—and come home with photos of quality that I and others can recognize. A thousand other photographers may take the same pictures, more or less, but when I get a picture I want to print on good paper and hang on my wall, it’s no less satisfying for that.

Apart from music itself, which I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, the notion of technologically mediated artistic experience is the main thing that drew me to audio in the first place. I’m fascinated that the choices engineers make can so profoundly affect our enjoyment of art—in this case, music. It may be true, as Twain said, that writing about art is like dissecting a frog—both end up dead— but I still want to know what technological and scientific choices are most effective, and how that science can be comprehended from an artistic perspective. Despite what some people claim, science and art differ from each other in the most profound ways, and are based on different notions of truth: timeless, universal, and objective on the one hand, and deeply human, personal (if also broadly shared), and subjective on the other. The merging of these worlds, these notions of truth, in a single pursuit—photography, audio—is one of the more fascinating topics this world offers.

There is, as I’ve already mentioned, an important way that audio and photography differ: a camera is akin to a microphone, not an amplifier, and the photographer to a sound engineer, and perhaps even to the musician. We audiophiles are stuck at the other, less creative end of the artistic process. How, then, should we think of ourselves, if not as mere high-end consumers?

There is art in our choices, I think—but I think we’re mainly collectors. In his essay “Collectors,” in the book Why People Photograph, photographer and essayist Robert Adams writes: “Collectors share with artists a narrow but intense sensualism. The opportunity for this in photography might at first seem limited, but in fact an enjoyment of photographs is stronger for the subtle distinctions involved.” Sound familiar?

The two groups, artists and collectors, also share a certain elite (perhaps elitist) vision: No artist or true collector “has ever held the slightest suspicion that a majority of people recognize the best art a majority of the time,” Adams writes. “Artists admire collectors who are doers, people who, like themselves, are willing to take risks in an effort to build new syntheses.” The collector’s main risk, presumably, is the money spent.

So, what are we buying with that money? When we make the right purchasing choices, what do we get back from those risks we take? It’s a form of self-expression, or even self-construction. Adams quotes painter Robert Henry: “In no work will you find the final word, nor will you find a receipt that will just fit you. The fun of living”—and of making pictures, and of building an audio system and enjoying the music it makes—”is that we have to make ourselves.”—Jim Austin

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