Friday, November 12, 2010

A Little Picture, A Little Sound and You're Back in the Moment

Ecole Militaire, 2006

Do your pictures have sound?

Of course, still photographs don’t make sounds. And they don’t necessarily need it. Whatever it was that drew you to make a visual record or impression of a place probably was more about what you saw than what you heard.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t hear things when you look at some of your pictures.

A lot of my pictures don’t have aural memories. I remember taking the pictures. I might have other sensory memories, such as the way a river smelled, or how the exhaust fumes of a bus made my eyes burn. But I don’t always remember how things sounded.

When I do have a sound memory, though, it’s amazing how the sound takes me back to the moment when I took the picture.

Some pictures are easy. It doesn’t take much to remember, or imagine, the sound of water in a fountain or rushing down the Sperryville Run in the Shenandoah National Park.

Sperryville Run, 2009

But what about pictures that don’t have easy clues as to what it sounded like? It seems to me the wider the scope of the picture, the harder it is to pin down any memorable sounds. Up on this cliff where I took the picture, below, the only sound I heard was the sound of the wind from an approaching storm behind me. I couldn’t begin to hear the sound of the river hundreds of feet below me.

The View From White Rock, New Mexico, 2006

When all’s said and done, the picture doesn’t have to have sound, and for the sake of the enjoyment of an independent observer, shouldn’t depend on sound to prop it up.

But for the photographer, part of the joy of this form of expression, no matter how literal or conceptual the photograph, is the joy of being back in the moment. I can’t look at a picture of the Arno River flowing through Florence, Italy, without hearing the songs of swallows. (You can hear them about a minute into this video.)

Similarly, I can’t look at Ecole Militaire, above, without hearing the sound of the bicycle in the scene. It’s not like I haven’t heard the sound of a bicycle before. But like the swallows in Florence, whenever I hear the chain on my own bike I am back standing in Paris just after sunrise watching this man ride his bike to work.


  1. I have a picture I didn't take, because of silence, but it doesn't matter because I still have the picture!

    On a holiday to France we visited the Abbaye de Bec Hellouin in Normandy. You can wander around the grounds of the Abbey at will and I went into a small chapel. It was empty, very light with sun flooding through the windows. I could hear an organ playing, but couldn't see an organ or work out where it was. I sat there listening for a while, then it stopped and I heard footsteps fading into the distance, still without seeing anyone. After that silence. I sat for a little longer and went back out into the sunshine.

  2. I have photos that do that, bring back sounds and/or smells. Most are on the beach back home but there are others.....When you spoke of the sound of the wind as you took the shot from the cliff I have similar shots made from some of the local peaks.

  3. That Paris picture is stunning, Chris. Perhaps one of your best.

    I just booked a trip to Paris in April. It will be all about photography