I recently (June 2018) judged student portfolios at the School of the International Center of Photography in New York City. I had done this before. In general, students brought a series of inkjet or traditional darkroom prints for me to look over and offer feedback. Sometimes, especially last year, a few students showed me their photos on an iPad or laptop computer.
This year, I noticed that several students, about half of whom I judged, were carrying laptop computers with their work on it. But much to my surprise, most all of them had headphones attached and, when they showed their work, they included sound. Sometimes this was ambient sound from where they shot their still or moving images. Other times it was original composed sound, but none of them simply added pop music from their collection. They were thinking of sound design as part of their image design.
That idea was much stranger when I was a university student. Sound technology and photo technology were very different. I was considered a bit weird by my classmates for working in both fields since each required special equipment and training. Different technologies had to be mastered for photography and sound.
I think I have provided some of my early history in both fields on another post, but here is a short summary:
I started taking photos when I was eight years old. By age 12 I was developing and printing black-and-white photos, and I started processing color film when I was 15. In college (at Michigan State University) I ran the darkroom for the public TV station owned by the university and shot publicity photos of many of the noted artists who performed on the air, since the station was nationally known for classical music programs.
But I was also taken with other technologies. By age 15 I knew all about helicopters and could tell you how to fly one (not that I could afford to be a pilot then) and by eighth grade could tell you how atom bombs worked. But I was especially interested in sound recording from the time my parents took me to the house of a friend of theirs who owned a wire recorder (in about 1948 or so). In grammar school we sometimes used tape recorders. I remember going to the public library when about 15 to take out books on how tape recording worked. I wanted to build a tape recorder but quickly realized I did not have enough money for the supplies or tools it would take.
In high school (1957-60) I was given, by the school principal, an old disc recorder they were going to throw out. It was not working but I managed to restore it with a minimum cash outlay for parts. It was similar to the disc recorder that Alan Lomax used to record folk music for the Library of Congress, though I think mine was slightly more oriented to home rather than commercial use. In college I impressed my friends by playing acetate discs I had recorded. Later in my college years I worked in a record store and was finally able to purchase a tape recorder.
As I mentioned, the public TV station I worked for was known for classical music and we recorded programs with famous classical artists. In graduate school I worked as a producer and had to be concerned with both sound and images, since we planned all camera shots in an attempt to guide the viewer in understanding the music—no random “wing it” shots like some stations used. I got the job because I had studied music and could follow scores well.
We used mostly Telefunken capacitor microphones (though also an occasional RCA ribbon mic), and the audio engineer for those programs taught me high-end classical music audio recording way beyond anything that was taught in the communications classes I took at the university at that time. Thus I always had one foot in the visual arts “pond” and one in the audio “pond” starting even when I was young.
That continued into my adult life even up to today. I do photography and some filmmaking, studio television, sound recording, and electronic music creation. In 1970, when I was teaching at Creighton University in Omaha, I had a girlfriend over to my apartment who saw a harpsichord on one side of my living room and a then-new-and-exotic music synthesizer with two professional tape recorders (one Ampex and one Magnacorder) on the other side. She commented, “You seem to be an odd mixture of the antique and avant garde.” Guilty as charged. Even today I have a harpsichord in my sound-production studio, the only sound-producing device I don’t have to plug into an electrical power source.
The point I am getting to, slowly I fear, is that each of the two technologies, photography and sound, required very different technical skills and equipment, and I was the rare person who worked in both. I rented a major sound studio once for a project where one of the staff members said he thought I should not do both visual and sound art but simply specialize in one thing. He was against people working in multiple fields. His viewpoint would be considered archaic in this digital age.
For serious photography in the “olden” days, one needed a good camera, a budget for film, photo paper and chemicals, and access to a good darkroom. When I taught at Creighton I was allowed to use the well-equipped Creighton Medical School darkroom. (Medical schools have lots of money.) Later in Omaha, when I worked in advertising I rented a darkroom. At Dutchess Community College, where I was on the faculty for nearly 30 years, I taught courses in photography and had access to the darkrooms. In the last years of teaching photography we switched mostly to digital as cameras, printers, scanners, and computers became powerful digital-imaging tools.
Analog sound recording was a whole different, and expensive, technology. One needed expensive analog tape recorders (more than one if one wanted to mix several recordings together, though later multitrack recorders—also expensive— could be used). Tape was fairly expensive. Mixing meant feeding multiple tracks or recorders through an audio console. Editing sometimes meant splicing tape with a razor blade. I got good at that and sometimes amazed students by being able to make inaudible splices on complex recorded music.
Even though I taught photography/video, audio recording, and electronic music for many years, few students pursued both fields as I had done while young. UNTIL…
The computer (once it became powerful) took over many functions of both photo and audio. Now a laptop computer can function as a “darkroom” using programs such as Adobe Photoshop, and programs such as Logic and Pro-Tools can replace multitrack recorders and a console on the same laptop one can use for photos.
Many colleges, tending to compartmentalization, still mostly offer photo in one department or program and audio in another. Some students do take both. But we are now seeing a real change, as I saw at the International Center ofPhotography, as students see audio and image as parts of the same whole, not as separate fields.
I am excited about this trend. Of course many students are still “feeling their way” in one area or the other—sometimes with mixed results—but I think we will soon see very accomplished media artists who don’t identify themselves as either sound or picture artists. To me, this is a good trend.
Sound and image are part of the same human sensory apparatus. I am pleased that they are tending to become one.